Posts Tagged ‘German Literature’

Fuck America. Bronsky’s Confession by Edgar Hilsenrath – Bandini on steroids

January 30, 2021 11 comments

Fuck America by Edgar Hilsenrath (1980) French title: Fuck America. Translated by Jörg Stickan.

Last time I visited a bookstore, I thought I’d browse through the German literature shelf and see if I could find a book that wasn’t about WWII and wasn’t too depressing. Sometimes it seems that only those make it into French translation. Fuck America by Edgar Hilsenrath caught my eye for its bold title and its colorful cover.

The book opens on a prologue: letters exchanged between Nathan Bronsky and the American consul in Germany. After Kristallnacht, Nathan Bronsky, a Jew who lives in Halle an der Saale, wants to emigrate to the USA with his family. The consul answers that it will take several years.

Then we’re in New York in 1953. Jakob Bronsky, Nathan’s son has been in America for a year. He lives in a boarding house and spends his nights at the emigrant cafeteria on Broadway and 86th. It’s open all night long, coffee is cheap and Bronsky stays there to write his great novel, The Wanker.

We follow Bronsky in his daily life, where he alternates odd jobs to save enough money to live off this cash for a while and write other chapters. He describes all his tricks to take the bus without paying and to make his money last longer. He steals a bit of coffee and some eggs in the communal kitchen at the boarding house. He eats in restaurants and leaves without paying, escaping through the bathroom windows.

Bronsky lives in a poor neighborhood, full of emigrants, prostitutes and bums. He associates with street smart emigrants or bums and follow them in small scheme to swindle money while on their jobs. Small tricks, not too risky, not too illegal. Just poor guys who turn the tables on those who try to exploit them.

Bronsky is not a good emigrant. He writes in German and has no intention of ever writing in English. He doesn’t feel at ease in the American society. He doesn’t want to become an American because he doesn’t buy the American dream. He doesn’t want to work hard and become rich. He doesn’t subscribe to consumer society, to the need to show off, to earn more to buy more.

Then the book turns into a confession and we learn what happened to the Bronsky family between 1939 and 1952 and how he arrived in America. I understand that Jakob Bronsky’s life is based on Hilsenrath’s. And that part is not so funny.

Bronsky is a Jewish Bandini merged with a sober Bukowski and a Portnoy born in 1926 Germany. He’s offensive. The dialogues are crude, absurd and hilarious. He’s obsessed with sex, obsessed with writing. He has a wicked sense of humor and he points out the foibles and prejudices of the American way of life. The passages when he does odd jobs are funny and vivid. Jakob is not a bad guy. He does what he can to survive and write his novel, trying to expurge from his sytem the burden of his war memories. He’s a survivor of the Holocaust and we tend to forget it because of the dark humor instilled in the book.

So, OK, I didn’t manage to read a German book that doesn’t talk about WWII but I sure want to read more by Hilsenrath.

Theatre: The Life of Galileo by Bertold Brecht and The Crucible by Arthur Miller

December 1, 2019 11 comments

November was German Lit Month and a total miss for me. I still couldn’t read Berlin Alexanderplatz and didn’t have time to read anything else. But! I finished this month on an excellent note. I saw the play Life of Galileo by Bertold Brecht.

As frequent readers of this blog know, I have a subscription to the Théâtre des Célestins, a majestic theatre in Lyon. This Life of Galileo (1938) was directed by Claudia Stavisky and Galileo was played by the great actor Philippe Torreton.

Brecht relates Galileo’s life from the moment he figures out that the Earth rotates around the sun and subsequently destroys Aristotle’s vision of the cosmos. The play shows a Galileo who unknowingly works on the foundation of modern physics by putting emphasis on experimenting and demonstrating concepts. We know what happened, the Catholic Church felt threatened. Religions in general work on the basis of certainty and “absolute thinking”. They know the truth, which automatically means that what they say can’t be challenged and those who don’t think the way they do are in the wrong. And here we have a man who preaches doubt as a way of thinking: challenge everything you take for granted, you might be surprised. It can’t go well for him. Religions also hold their sacred texts as the truth and sometimes take them literally. How to reconcile the Bible with science? That’s another question.

Brecht’s point is also that the Catholic Church is an instrument in the hands of princes and kings to keep the people under their yoke. Don’t worry if your life is miserable, you’ll go to heaven and eternal life is way longer than this earthly one, so why bother. If the Church has to acknowledge that the Aristotelian vision of the world was a mistake, then it means that what they taught was wrong. It will undermine their power on the little people’s minds.

Galileo also believed in the democratization of knowledge. He wrote books in Italian instead of Latin because he wanted them to be accessible. That was another thorn in the Church’s side. (Remember that the mass was in Latin until 1962.)

The holy trinity of theatre was met for Life of Galileo. First we have a brilliant text by Brecht, easy to follow and engrossing. Then we have Claudia Stavisky’s wonderful direction. She managed –again—to give a contemporary vibe to a text and inject liveliness in something that could have been a dry argument. (Read here how she turned a play by Corneille into a fun rom com without betraying the original text). And last but not least, we have Torreton’s exceptional acting skills. I’ve seen him several time on stage, like in I Take My Father on My Shoulders by Fabrice Melchiot or in Cyrano de Bergerac and I’m always in awe. He’s on stage as if he were in his living room. His speech seems effortless and for the public, it’s magic. We’re catapulted into the story because he sounds real, not staged.

For the anecdote, I noted two small anachronisms in the text: once a character mentions “cm3”, when the metric system came with the French Revolution and another time, a character says “Versailles” to refer or France but Louis XIV moved permanently in Versailles in 1682 and Galileo died in 1642.

So, if you’re in France and you see La vie de Galilée in your theatre, hurry up and buy tickets for this play, it even has subtitles in English. As far as German Lit Month is concerned, maybe I should stick to reading plays, I enjoy Brecht and Bernhard.

Earlier in the theatre season, I also saw The Crucible by Arthur Miller, directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota. (In French, it’s translated as Les Sorcières de Salem). Miller wrote this play in 1953 as an allegory of McCarthyism. While I disliked the hysterical parts when the witches behave as if they were possessed, the process leading to the wrongful condemnation of twenty innocent people was implacable.

The play shows what happens when people are impervious to objective reasoning. It explores how quickly a community becomes suspicious and falls under the spell of people who are affirmative, who shout louder than the others and stir up our basest instincts.

It also pictures well how greed comes into the equation and how the witch hunt becomes an opportunity to put one’s hands on someone’s property. The play dissects the fight between Reason and Religious Belief. Here, Religion presses the buttons of intellectual laziness: nothing needs to be challenged and the scriptures are always right. Plus, you have to believe first and think after. The Crucible shows how difficult it is for sensible thinking to engage swords with objective reasoning. The mechanics of the trial is unstoppable and until the end, the spectator of the 21st century expects that the truth wins, that such a blatant mistake cannot be hold as the truth. But of course, that’s not what happened.

These two plays echo with our times. Social networks are an open agora where everyone’s opinion has the same weight. Opinions are the great influencers of our century. How long will real journalists and honest scientists have voices strong enough to be heard over the mayhem of unruly tweets and intellectual dishonesty? Seen from my European corner, the battle seems lost in the US. Sandwiched between an opinionated trash TV, a president who spouts nonsenses on a daily basis and loud fundamentalist Christians, is there room left for rational thinking? If Galileo came to visit the 21st century, wouldn’t he be distraught to see creationism taught in some schools?

But Europe is not out the woods either. These are hot topics here too. The fact that theatre directors pick these plays proves that it is a preoccupation. J’accuse, the film about the Dreyfus Affair made 0.8 million of entries in two weeks. (4th in the French box office) It is the breathtaking relation of the Dreyfus trial and the long way to his rehabilitation. It sure doesn’t show France into a favorable light, something Proust describes thoroughly under the apparent lightness of society life. Zola and Voltaire are pillars of our national Pantheon because they fought for someone trialed and condemned, not fort their acts but due to the biased functioning of the courts. Dreyfus for Zola, Calas for Voltaire. J’accuse coming out in 2019 is not a coincidence. We see extremists raise their ugly heads again and it is a cold reminder of what happens when they worm themselves into the workings of administrations.

It all comes down to safeguarding the concepts of the Age of Enlightenment.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong : Sorry, but I quit

November 16, 2019 45 comments

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin (1929) French title: Berlin ALexanderplatz. Translated by Olivier Le Lay

This is my second attempt at reading Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. Lizzy and Caroline host it this year for German Lit Month and I thought I’d try again. I stretched my fingers to hold the chunkster, put the sticky notes in the book to mark the weeks of the readalong and started to spend time with Franz Biberkopf, the hero of this 613 pages long novel. (At least in French and in my Folio edition. Don’t forget that, due to the language, books are about 10% longer in French than in English)

Despite my motivation, I abandoned Berlin Alexanderplatz again. I don’t care to know what’s going to happen to Franz Biberkopf. I was reading and pages were gliding over my brain like water on trout’s skin. (Yeah, no more fly-fishing reads for me, I have scars) In other words, I was reading and not imprinting anything.

I tried to force myself and after a few painful reading sessions, I started to wonder why I was inflicting this to myself. For the bragging rights? To tick a box on the 1001-books-you-must-read-before-you-die list? (I’m closeted 1001-books lister) I had to stop and remind myself that nobody cares whether I finish it or not, that reading is my hobby, not my duty. And reading must remain a pleasure, and nothing else. Goodbye to Berlin!

So, I hope that the other participants to the readalong have a great time with Döblin. My thoughts haven’t changed in five years and what I wrote in my previous billet is still valid.


German Lit Month : Ice Moon by Jan Costin Wagner

November 11, 2017 13 comments

Ice Moon by Jan Costin Wagner (2003) French title : Lune de glace. Translated from the German by Stéphanie Lux.

As I’m now embarked in Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, Ice Moon by Jan Costin Wagner will be my only contribution to Caroline and Lizzy’s German Lit Month.

Ice Moon is the first instalment of the crime fiction series featuring Kimmo Joentaa, a Finish police officer. Jan Costin Wagner is German and lives half the year in Finland with his Finnish wife. This explains the Finnish setting of his books. We are in Turku, a city located in the South-West of Finland. It opens with a heartbreaking scene: Kimmo Joentaa is at the hospital where his young wife is dying of cancer. The first moments of the book are dedicated to her death and the devastation that invades every nook and corner of Kimmo’s being.

At the same time, a woman is discovered dead in her sleep. The police station in Turku is in a turmoil and a bit overwhelmed with the investigation. Against his officer’s wishes, Joentaa decides to go back to work soon after his wife’s death, partly to be occupied and tame his sadness and partly because he wants to solve this crime.

The book alternates between Kimmo’s and the murderer’s point of view. The reader knows from the start who did it and reads through the race between the police and the murderer. Will the police catch him before he commits other crimes?

I’m not too fond of books were the murderer has a mental illness or is obviously unbalanced. I think it’s an easy device. I prefer crime fiction books that either explore the evil inside of us or show how a bad decision can lead you to crime. I’d rather read about perfectly sane murderers who act badly out of greed, to protect themselves or whatever but who are not pushed by a mental illness. I think it’s more interesting to question our dark side than to read about a “crazy” serial killer. This side of Ice Moon didn’t appeal to me but it’s more a question of preference in terms of crime fiction in general than a problem with the book itself.

I was more disturbed by Kimmo Joentaa as a character. His grief consumes his days and his nights. He tries to cope with his wife’s death, with his solitude in their home. He’s a difficult man to understand. His wife grounded him in an unhealthy way. He didn’t seem to be a whole man before her and now that she’s gone, his balance is challenged. There are some disturbing passages where Kimmo enters into a weird connection with the murderer that helps him understands the criminal’s motives and modus operandi and it made me ill-at-ease. I’m not sure I want to be in Kimmo’s head for another book.

All in all, it’s well-written even if it’s cold, maybe due to the setting, maybe due to the original language. Books translated from the German often seem a little cold and uptight to me, I can’t explain why. Plot-wise it holds together but it didn’t quite work for me. It felt as weird as its book cover. There’s another review by Guy here.

Have you read it? If yes, did you like it?

Crimes by Ferdinand von Schirach

November 26, 2015 14 comments

Crimes by Ferdinand von Schirach (2009) French title : Crimes. Translated from the German by Pierre Malherbet.

German_Lit_MonthThis read belongs to two events, it is my Book Club read for November and it’s my participation to German Literature month. Ferdinand von Schirach is a defense attorney at the Berlin court. His collection of short stories is made of fictionalized real crime cases he encountered during his career. The collection includes eleven stories of about 25 pages each. Here is the list of the stories in English:

  • Fähner
  • Tanata’s Tea Bowl
  • The Cello
  • The Hedgehog
  • Bliss
  • Summertime
  • Self-defense
  • Green
  • The Thorn
  • Love
  • The Ethiopian.

SchirachEach story relates a particular case. We enter briefly into the personal story of the person accused of a crime. We are told the facts of the case and how it was judged. The prose is sober, without pathos. He never hides the horror of the crimes but still shows you how it happened and tries to understand why. He also gives us information about the German justice system which I found very interesting.

I won’t get into each story, it would be too long and would spoil the fun for prospective readers. I’ll just say they are varied, about blood crimes, bank robberies, break-ins or assaults. Their common denominator? Things aren’t as simple as they seem and the criminal’s life is unusual.

The titles of the stories are the same in French than in English, except for the first one (Les pommes, or Apples) and Green, which became Synesthésie in French (Synaesthesia). While I recognize in the choice of Synesthésie the French tendency to use complicated words when it’s not required, the change of the first title is important. Fähner is the name of the murderer of this particular story. I downloaded the Kindle sample of the German edition of Crime and the title of the first story is actually Fähner. So the change comes from the French translator. Les pommes relates to a part of the story originally named Fähner. It is not a whimsical change. Indeed, Crimes opens with a quote by Werner K. Heisenberg, The reality we can put into words is never reality itself and it closes with another quote Ceci n’est pas une pomme. (This is not an apple), left in French in the original edition of the book.

Magritte_PommeIt is actually the title of a painting by René Magritte and it echoes with the opening quote and the French title of the story opening the collection. With his series La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images), Magritte represents an apple and writes it is not an apple. It is the representation of an apple, the image of an apple but not an apple in itself. There’s something beyond the image and what he paints is not the real thing. You can’t eat it or touch it. It gives you the illusion of knowing what an apple is. With this last quote, it seems to me that von Schirach reminds us that there’s more beyond the words. His stories are based on true cases but they don’t tell the truth or show you the real person. It remains a story, a representation of the facts and characters interpreted by the writer. What we’ve just read is not reality but a representation of reality.

Highly recommended.


Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

November 30, 2014 42 comments

Death in Venice (1912) by Thomas Mann (1875-1955) French title: La mort à Venise. Translated by Félix Bertaux and Charles Sigwalt. (1925)


I happened to be in Venice in November, during German Lit Month. So I decided to re-read Death in Venice by Thomas Mann.

Disclaimer: I have read this in French and I tried to find an English translation of the quotes I wanted to use in this post but I didn’t find any. So I did the translations myself which isn’t easy with that kind of prose. If you can, read the French text.

Mann_VeniseGustav Aschenbach is a famous and ageing writer. He lives a quiet and rather solitary life, working on his books. On a whim, he decides to go to Venice on holiday. He stays at a hotel at the Lido and sees a young adolescent, Tadzio. He’s Polish and he’s also on holiday with his family. Aschenbach thinks Tadzio is about 14 and he finds him very attractive. The novella describes Aschenbach’s growing obsession to the young Tadzio. Where will that lead him?

Death in Venice was written in 1912 and Thomas Mann manages to pack a lot of things in his novella. Thoughts about literature and the role of writers in society, art and homosexuality. Mann really spent time in Venice in 1911 and he said lots of things included in Death in Venice are true. As always with a classic, I can only write my response to it and I won’t pretend to analyse anything that more literate people have analysed before me. Hell, some have even tracked down the real Tadzio and written a book about him!

The novella first describes Aschenbach’s personality. He’s first portrayed at home, in his environment. He’s a respectable and respected writer and he was ennobled when he was fifty. He’s an institution and he reminded me of Edward Driffield in Cakes and Ale. He’s very literate as a writer of his time should be. He has a thorough knowledge of classics and Roman and Greek authors.

À égale distance de l’excentrique et du banal, son talent était de nature à lui attirer à la fois les suffrages du grand public et cette admiration des connaisseurs qui oblige l’artiste. At equal distance between eccentricity and banality, his talent was such that he attracted both general public’s attention and the praise from connoisseurs that pleases the artist.

Isn’t it the writer’s dream? Popular success and peers admiration?

Aschenbach is not a big traveller except for hygienic reasons which, in my mind, says a lot about him. In everyday life, nothing should be done for only hygienic reasons except taking a shower and cleaning the house. Aschenbach seems a tiny little bit uptight and Mann’s prose gives it back perfectly. There’s nothing funny here, no attempt at irony or humorous vision of life of any kind. He sounds like someone for whom the importance of being earnest must be taken literally. Aschenbach is a stern man, living an ascetic life and he’s clearly acting out of character in this novella.

Aschenbach is also a closeted homosexual. It is a novel of its time, he can’t be anything but closeted. During the journey to Venice, von Aschenbach sees a group of young people accompanied by an older man.

Mais l’ayant considéré de plus près, Aschenbach constata avec horreur qu’il avait devant lui un faux jeune homme. Nul doute, c’était un vieux beau. Sa bouche, ses yeux avaient des rides. Le carmin mat de ses joues était du fard, sa chevelure, noire sous le chapeau à ruban de couleur, une perruque; le cou était flasque et fripé; la petite moustache retroussée et la mouche au menton étaient teintes; les dents, que son rire découvrait en une rangée continue, fausses et faites à bon marché, et ses mains qui portaient aux deux index des bagues à camées étaient celles d’un vieillard. But seeing him closer, Aschenbach realised with horror that he had a faux young man in front of him. No doubt he was an old beau. His mouth and eyes had wrinkles. The red on his cheeks was make-up. His hair, black under his hat with a colourful ribbon was a wig. His neck was flabby. His little turned-up moustache and the beauty spot on his chin were dyed. His teeth he showed in laughter were aligned but fake and cheap. His hands whose index fingers wore two rings were those of an old man.

It is hard not to think about Sodome et Gomorrhe by Proust when you read this. It could be a description of the ageing Baron de Charlus. Sodome et Gomorrhe was written after Death in Venice. I wasn’t able to find out whether Proust could read in German or if the 1925 translation of Death in Venice I read is the first one. (which means it was released in French after Proust’s death) So I don’t know if Proust had read this novella before writing Sodome et Gomorrhe or not.

Anyway. We readers of Death in Venice are warned before Aschenbach reaches Venice: he’s repulsed by old beaus and this group of young men. This passage makes his fall for Tadzio even more tragic and enforces the power his infatuation has over him:

La passion oblitère le sens critique et se commet de parfaite bonne foi dans des jouissances que de sang-froid l’on trouverait ridicules ou repousserait avec impatience. Passion erases good judgment and indulges in perfect good faith in pleasures that one would find ridicule or would reject with impatience where they in thinking clearly.

We feel that he’s old, he’s managed to keep his homosexuality bottled up and the dam breaks late in life, overcome by the Greek beauty of the young Tadzio. (Of course Tadzio is compared to a Greek statue which I find a bit trite from Mann. Proust is more original in his comparisons, using Renaissance paintings for example.) Poor Aschenbach doesn’t know what hit him and I felt pity for the old man struck by such an embarrassing passion at his age.

There is much to say about this rich novella. I enjoyed reading it even if Mann’s style is a little too bombastic for my taste. All the stuffy references to Greek myths and Latin sentences didn’t age well. It was perfectly clear for the reader of his time (and I believe Max had the same experience with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) but not so much for today’s reader.

That said, the descriptions of Venice are gorgeous and it was a treat to be there and read about it in great style.


I didn’t explore here all the thoughts about art and writing displayed in Death in Venice. I don’t have time to dig further, unfortunately. I leave you with one quote about writing that I liked particularly.

 La pensée qui peut, tout entière, devenir sentiment, le sentiment qui, tout entier, peut devenir pensée, font le bonheur de l’écrivain.  Thoughts that can become feelings and feelings that can become thoughts are a writer’s happiness.

Berlin Transfer

November 9, 2014 41 comments

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. 1929. French translation by Olivier Le Lay. (2008)

Doblin_BerlinMy good resolution for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy was to read Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. I’ve read 225 pages out of 625 and then decided that life was too short and my reading time too limited to force feed myself with more of Franz Biberkopf’s struggles in Berlin from the 1920s.

Here’s the story. Franz Biberkopf is freshly out of prison. He was condemned after killing his wife in a domestic fight. Now that he’s free, he determined to stay on the right side of law. But things aren’t easy outside when nobody is expecting you, when you’re alone in a metropolis and where you’re doomed to remain in the shady part of society.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a great novel. I’d say it echoes to Manhattan Transfer which was published in 1925 and in a way it resonates with No Beast So Fierce for its ex-convict theme.

Döblin and Dos Passos have the same sense of describing the bowels of a city, be it Berlin or New York. The form of their novel is similar with chapters describing the city and the people and their struggle to survive. Döblin concentrates on Franz Biberkopf while Do Passos creates a whole gallery of characters, giving a real feeling of the town. Manhattan Transfer pictures a wider range of social classes and this is where Döblin joins Bunker. Both show the city’s unsavoury neighbourhoods, in Berlin and in LA. Bunker describes wonderfully how difficult it is to go out of prison, have no one to welcome you and help you outside. Biberkopf wants to be honest now and turn over a new leaf but the economy is bad and he has trouble finding a job. I can’t tell more about the book since I’ve only read one third of it.

Döblin’s style is, I suppose, modernist or experimental, whatever that means. It’s not easy to read but Dos Passos isn’t easy either. I believe both brought something new to literature. My copy of Berlin Alexanderplatz is translated by Olivier Le Lay. It’s a new translation and he did an outstanding job. He translated the German into the French from the east of the country. For example, he wrote tu es schlass, which means you’re knackered. In common French, you’d say tu es crevé. Schlass is really a word we use in Alsace-Moselle. Sometimes, Le Lay also translated the German usage of putting a definite article before proper nouns. Like here: eh ben la Fölsch, elle est ben étalagiste, literally well, the Fölsch, she’s a window dresser, isn’t she? This use of the definite article before a proper noun is allowed in German and is used in popular French in Alsace-Moselle. In addition to these ways of germanising the French, he also translated accents to give a better idea of the atmosphere of the book. So the French reveals the German and you really feel like you’re in Germany and you forget it hasn’t been written in your language.

So after reading this, you wonder “If it’s that good, why did she abandon Berlin Alexanderplatz?” especially since I LOVED Manhattan Transfer and No Beast So Fierce. Why couldn’t I finish it? The reason I see is that Do Passos and Bunker instilled warmth and life in their work. Their characters are alive and human. Franz Biberkopf is cold. Döblin doesn’t explore his feelings enough. He’s a cog in a machine-city that crushes people. I couldn’t care less about him and what would become of him. I wanted to know what would become of the characters Dos Passos created and I wanted Bunker’s Max Dembo to escape his criminal fate. I rooted for them, I was interested.

The coldness I mentioned before prevented me from enjoying myself. I wasn’t willing to put more energy in this long novel. I was confronted again to the same experience with German literature that I’ve had before. I haven’t read many German books but each time I was dissatisfied. They were cold, the characters aloof. As a reader, I’m in a position of looking insects into a microscope, not of sharing a human experience. The writer doesn’t manage to reach out to me. Please, leave recommendations in the comments about German books that aren’t heavy and stuffy. Introduce me to let’s say, the German Nick Hornby or Alberto Moravia or Richard Russo or Philippe Besson. Otherwise, I’m going to think I need to stick to Austrian writers when German language literature month arrives.

For a review of Berlin Alexanderplatz by someone who’s read the entire book, read Max’s review here. Despite my poor experience with Döblin, I still recommend Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Rilke, again.

November 29, 2013 28 comments

Au fil de la vie by Rainer Maria Rilke. 1898. Am Leben in, Novellen und Skizzen. Translated into French by Claude Porcell.

German_lit_monthYEEESSS ! I made it on time for German lit month!! Lucky me, it’s week “Read as you want”. OK, let’s face it, I didn’t read The Magic Mountain or Berlin Alexanderplatz. November is a hectic month at work and I’ve only managed to read a collection of short stories by Rainer Maria Rilke Am Leben hin, Novellen und Skizzen. It proved an excellent choice.

This collection was initially published in 1898 and the short stories were written from 1893 to 1897. Rilke was born in 1875, so he was young when he wrote this. This collection includes eleven stories of approximately ten pages each. They are all about everyday life, snapshots about the characters at a special moment of their life. Most of the stories are about death, illness and old age but they’re not really sad. The truth is I had already met with Rilke in lovetortured Rilke, wise Rilke and now I’ve met with playful Rilke.

The first story is about a family lunch to celebrate the eighth anniversary of the death of Mr Anton von Wick. Rilke depicts the family stiffly gathering for the mass, walking from the church to the house under the patronage of Stanislas von Wick, the new head of the family. Rilke describes with a lot of humour the characters’ flaws, the contrived interactions between the relatives thrown together again for this lunch, each of them playing their usual part. Only time hits them mercilessly as they get older.

I enjoyed immensely The Secret, the absurd story of two spinsters Rosine and Clotilde. They are not related but live together. We discover why Rosine stayed with Clotilde and which secret seals their alliance.

I was delighted by The Anniversary for its vivid description of the morning sun entering the room of Aunt Babette. Rilke describes perfectly the sunbeams waking up the old lady, caressing her face, illuminating the usual furniture with morning freshness. It’s those rays of light that make you picture a familiar place differently, as if you were seeing it for the first time.

Rilke_fil_de_la_vieThe stories portray characters’ flaws and weaknesses. Some are cowards. Some are mean. Some let their obsessive love for their child become selfishness. Some are hopelessly in love or on the contrary, embarrassed by an intrusive lover. The storyline is always, not inspiring but marked with a stunning understanding of the human mind. Rilke has already this built-in wisdom that will blossom in Letters to a Young Poet. He figures out motives, goals, feelings, deceptions and disappointments behind the facades of the faces. He’s always benevolent, kind to mankind but not blind. He doesn’t judge his characters but mostly pities them. I don’t know if Rilke was religious. From the book, I guessed that the environment he grew up in was Catholic.

More importantly, the whole collection reflects Rilke’s gift with words. His talent as a poet shines through his style in prose. It’s vivid like a picture, beautiful without lyricism and full of images. When someone is crying at church, he writes “emotion went from his nose to his handkerchief” I find this excellent. A few word and you see the person crying and feel their pain. It is difficult for me to pick more quotes since I read the book in French and I’m unable to read it in German. You’ll have to trust me on that one: Rilke writes beautifully.

This collection was welcome this month; my attention span was well adjusted to the ten-page length of these short stories. As with my previous experience with Rilke, I closed the book wanting more. There’s something about this writer that speaks directly to the most private part of my mind. Perhaps it’s his fondness for humanity. Perhaps he dies of weakness, like Gary puts it and his acceptance of his weakness gives him strength. I can’t explain why but I’m drawn to this brilliant and yet humble mind.

If you’ve never read him, anything will do. I wish I could read his poetry in German. Judging from his prose, it must be marvellous.

Guest post: Leroy reviews Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist

December 1, 2011 11 comments

Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist. 1810-1811

Here’s something new at Book Around The Corner: a guest post. I’m happy to introduce Leroy’s review of Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist. Enjoy!

Kleist has been in my mind for much of this year, in a vague way: I knew his name but only recently became aware of the sensational outline of his life; I thought I’d like to read him without really knowing what kind of books he wrote; I wanted to absorb what other people thought of his work but was happy to have only the most tenuous “fix” on him in my imagination.

All of this crystallised when Guy and Emma pointed me to Caroline and Lizzy’s exemplary online exercise: German Literature Month. I had a copy of one of his books on the shelf, and Kleist had a week dedicated to him in the project. So here was the impetus to read something by this elusive but important writer, and I duly turned to Michael Kohlhaas.

The tale occurs in the sixteenth century, so we are not very far removed (if at all) from the era of feudalism. Kleist opens his book with a description of Kohlhaas as “one of the most upright and at the same time one of the most terrible men of his day.” He is “extraordinary…the very model of a good citizen”, his children are “industrious and honest” and his neighbours acclaim his “benevolence [and] his fair-mindedness.” Yet, in closing his first paragraph, Kleist notes “his sense of justice turned him into a brigand and a murderer.” The opening said to me: this is a fable, and we are immediately in an arena of extremes, contrasts, and the tensions that must exist within a man described as Kohlhaas has been.

The story progresses to describe the affront to Kohlhaas (he is tricked into leaving two fine horses at a nobleman’s castle, where in his absence they are abused and overworked), his initial attempts at redress (he files a suit with the aid of a lawyer in Dresden, detailing his complaint) and his first set-backs (largely caused by family links within the elite ensuring Kohlhaas’s petition against his noble foe, the Junker Wenzel von Tronka, is dismissed out of hand). In the first of many such “by chance” events, Kohlhaas receives the news of his legal setback while in the presence of a sympathetic nobleman (the Governor of Brandenburg), who urges an alternative, official course upon him. Kohlhaas is relieved and renewed: he follows the course suggested (which is to petition the Elector of Brandenburg). But in short order this effort also becomes bogged down in proceduralism and the various linkages of the noble apparatchiks, whom he is relying on for justice, to the defendant, von Tronka.

I’ll admit I was already finding the book a little hard going. The plethora of titles, jurisdictions, families, petitions etc was becoming a little overwhelming. That said, I was as a reader (whether intentionally or not) in a good place to experience the frustration beginning to build in the breast of Michael Kohlhaas. His second petition is in due course rejected, setting in train a series of fatal events. Kohlhaas, refusing to live in a country where justice cannot be obtained, proposes to uproot his family and leave, and peremptorily agrees the sale of all his lands to his neighbour. His wife is appalled, and to forestall this drastic course suggests that she should petition the Elector of Brandenburg on her husband’s behalf. Kohlhaas agrees, and the (to me) predictable outcomes ensue: an apparent accident, a death, and the sparking of a black fire of hatred and vengeance in Kohlhaas’ mind.

Now Kleist really warms up: Kohlhaas’s rampage in search of justice begins. He sacks the von Tronka castle, killing some (all?) of the occupants, but the Junker escapes. He issues manifestoes. The numbers of his followers swell. He burns the town of Wittenburg, which is (unwillingly) sheltering the fugitive nobleman. He defeats forces sent against him. The ripples of his actions disturb the highest echelons of government. Eventually he takes to issuing notes that proclaim him “a viceroy of the Archangel Michael,” signed on behalf of “Our Provisional World Government.” Meanwhile the two black horses, source of the original outrage, have been forgotten about.

Kleist’s style, even when describing this extraordinary escalation of violence, is I must admit not a terribly amenable one. He describes individual scenes wonderfully, or puts stirring utterances into his character’s mouths; yet he always reverts to a rambling sort-of detail of the politics, the to-and-fro of the bureaucracy, the interplay of the seemingly endless list of title-holders and grandees drawn into Kohlhaas’s orbit. The smothering detail sits at odds with the incredible events driving the narrative, and the air of fable that we never quite escape is at odds with the sense that we are reading an ombudsman’s report about the whole affair.

When the elector received this letter, there were present in the palace Prince Christiem of Meissen, Commander-in-chief of the Realm, uncle of the Prince Friedrich of Meissen who had been defeated at Muhlberg and was still laid up with his wounds; the Lord High Chancellor Count Wrede; Count Kallheim, President of the Chancery of State; and the two lords Hinz and Kunz von Tronka, Cupbearer and Chamberlain, both intimate friends of the sovereign from his youth.

Is this deliberate? It did occur to me that Kleist was, in some way, satirising the hierarchy and the convoluted legal protocols he describes. After all, though a scion of privilege, he did reject the path he was offered, which would have placed him at the heart of the apparatus Kohlhaas is intent on destroying. Yet there is also something (seemingly) terribly sincere about Kleist’s writing, and there is no clue in the book that such slyness or irony does in fact exist. In all of this I am of course a victim of the translation I’m reading (by Martin Greenburg) and my own relative ignorance of Kleist’s other works.

We’re about half-way through the book now, and at this point no less than Martin Luther intervenes in the story, writing to Kohlhaas before conducting an interview with him (he thinks Kohlhaas is a lunatic). The scene where they debate is exactly like, in structure and content, the central part of Steve McQueen’s film Hunger, where Bobby Sands and a priest debate the morality of his hunger-strike campaign. I was riveted, and there are so many ideas exchanged about what society is, how we participate in it, what happens when it rejects us, our responsibilities, God’s role, the sovereign’s role:  it’s a packed ten pages. After this we are back into the world of procedures and titles; there is a scene with a dreadful palaver about the poor old nags who are the original cause of events; Kohlhaas enters house arrest while awaiting the opportunity to re-present his case; various red-herring sub-plots ensue. Finally, after 100-odd pages, we reach Kleist’s endgame.

Kohlhaas is dispatched to Berlin in chains, there to meet his fate in an Imperial court of the Holy Roman Empire (those ripples have spread far). On the way, Kleist contrives a “chance” meeting; we are taken back to an earlier time in the story and a completely new element is introduced. The net result of this is that Kohlhaas suddenly has a terrible power over his oppressors: how he chooses to use it determines the final course of events. Now to say this is a clunky way of finishing the story off is both true and missing the point. A modern author would no doubt be accused acting in bad faith were they to so radically re-configure our knowledge and expectations of the story. Yet for Kleist, I think this egregious final section tallies perfectly, in a way, with what has preceded. There has only barely been a coherent narrative up to this point, and the action of chance and fate has been constant (if not being manifested in quite so radical a manner). It sets up a striking final set-piece, which has the same strident, overblown quality as previous highlights we have encountered. And it leaves us (or me, anyway) with a ticklish sense of ambiguity about the whole tale – whose side are we on? What does it all mean?

Ultimately it’s the figure of Kohlhaas himself that will determine how you respond to this book. He’s a series of contrasts that never gel into a fully realised character, but he’s compelling in his passions and convictions. At the outset of the book, he seems punctilious, concerned with everything being in its right place, a model of the responsible, land-owning burgher. This is reflected in the detailed, patient way he engages with the legal processes and the early scenes of domesticity. As events unfold, this stolid figure is transformed into a violent, unforgiving zealot at war with the society he believes has wronged and mocked him. He presumes to debate with Luther; he thinks nothing of rank and status when he is consumed by his “unslaked thirst for revenge,” yet ultimately what he wants (and sets out to overthrow the order of things for being denied) is the recognition of the wrong done him and the seal of the legitimacy of his suit from the very institutions and persons he is at war with.

Is Kohlhaas really fired by a “sense of justice”, as Kleist tells us on the opening page of the book? Is there any way his response to events (pillage, murder, burning down towns, setting nations at odds) could be justified or considered proportionate to the wrongs done him? Of course, Kleist does acknowledge that Kohlhaas is a man of “excess”, which is probably putting it a little mildly, and another flavour of that excess is demonstrated at the end of the book, in the form of the cold, ruthless determination with which Kohlhaas exploits his unexpected, uncanny advantage. I’m left thinking of Kohlhaas as a forerunner of all the heroes of conservative-leaning westerns: the loner who has to serve his own justice because the damn system can’t or won’t – think also of Reagan-era action flicks with Sly and Arnie (“No One Gives Him A Raw Deal”), and even the crazed, God-defying protagonists of Werner Herzog’s oeuvre. Clearly there is something incredibly resonant about the figure of Kohlhaas, his situation and his actions.

For a short book, this is a tough read: I’d be interested in the perspective of German readers about the quality of the original prose for a modern reader. Kleist doesn’t tell his story particularly well, and the endless parade of legalisms and titles are a trial. But it has lodged itself in my mind, and I greatly enjoyed re-reading parts of it a second time to help write this up. At its best, it has quality of overflowing emotion: rage, desire, hatred. My copy describes the book as “a bridge between medieval and modern literature,” a statement the blurber neglects to expand upon or prove; for me, it has been a bridge to Kleist and his work, which I look forward to finding more of.

Postscript: this wasn’t coming together at all for me a while ago (and maybe it never did), but while I was struggling with that I went back to a short story by Robert Walser – Kleist in Thun – and it was truly alchemical the way the two books worked on each other in close imaginative proximity. I love Walser, and I’d like to do a quick follow-up on this story – if Emma is happy to indulge me once more!

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

November 21, 2011 19 comments

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane. 1894

I’ve read Effi Briest for the German Lit Month but I didn’t follow the readalong and answer the questions; I wanted to write a review.

Effi Briest was published in 1894 and is Fontane’s last book. At the beginning of the novel, Effi is 17. She lives with her parents and is chatting animatedly with her friends in the garden. She’s telling them that she’s just met Innstetten who used to be in love with her mother but wasn’t rich enough to marry her at the time. Instetten is 37, has never been married and is a Landrat, a civil servant. He’s currently appointed in Kessin, in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Now Effi has to get prepared as he’s coming to their house. When she comes home, she discovers that Innstetten proposed and they’re engaged. She has met him for the first time the day before.

After a short trip to Berlin to organize the wedding, they are promptly married and Effi moves into Innstetten’s house in Kessin. The house is decorated in a bizarre fashion; Effi is uncomfortable. The upper floor is empty but for a drawing of a Chinaman, who’s supposed to be the ghost of the house. Innstetten makes it a good thing to have a ghost; it’s chic; like having a distinguished butler.

Kessin is a small town and Effi fails to make interesting acquaintances. The only one is an old man, Gieshübler. Innstetten is ambitious and often leaves her alone to travel for work or to attend receptions at the court. She’s left alone and lonely. She is soon expecting a baby and her little Annie is born on July 3rd, the summer after their wedding. Motherhood doesn’t bring more happiness and Effi is bored until the Crampas moves into town. Frau Crampas is a bear and won’t be the friend Effi needs. So only Crampas will get acquainted with the Innstettens. Crampas is over forty, a womanizer who quickly starts flirting with Effi.

I let you imagine what will happen.

We are here on the same path as with Madame Bovary: a young woman, with an ill-matched husband, bored, who falls into the hands of a skilled seducer. But Effi and Emma only have their initials in common. I have to say I prefer Effi to Emma. Emma is foolish and in a way makes her own bed. She’s also guiltier as she actually sleeps with Rodolphe. Effi is a lot more intelligent and insightful.

So it came about that she, who by nature was frank and open, accustomed herself more and more to play an underhand part. At times she was startled at the ease with which she could do it. Only in one respect she remained unchanged–she saw everything clearly and glossed nothing.

Some compare Effi to Anna Karenina; I don’t remember it well-enough to comment on that.

Effi is a pure victim of the German society. At the beginning of the book, she’s full of life, running, joking, playing with girl-friends. Her engagement switches her off. It’s the end of innocence, she has to be serious. But as Rimbaud pointed out “On n’est pas sérieux, quand on a dix-sept ans”. Innstetten has the manners of a rigid teacher; it’s as if he whistled the end of playtime. Effi takes things as they come, she dutifully obeys her parents. She has her opinion about about marriage, though:

“Yes, I think so, too, mama. But just imagine–and I am almost ashamed to say it–I am not so very much in favor of what is called a model married life.”

“That is just like you. And now tell me, pray, what are you really in favor of?”

“I am–well, I am in favor of like and like and naturally also of tenderness and love. And if tenderness and love are out of the question, because, as papa says, love is after all only fiddle-faddle, which I, however, do not believe, well, then I am in favor of wealth and an aristocratic house, a really aristocratic one, to which Prince Frederick Charles will come for an elk or grouse hunt, or where the old Emperor will call and have a gracious word for every lady, even for the younger ones. And then when we are in Berlin I am for court balls and gala performances at the Opera, with seats always close by the grand central box.”

“Do you say that out of pure sauciness and caprice?”

“No, mama, I am fully in earnest. Love comes first, but right after love come splendor and honor, and then comes amusement–yes, amusement, always something new, always something to make me laugh or weep. The thing I cannot endure is ennui.”

Poor Effi, boredom is exactly what she’ll get as entertainment doesn’t agree with Innstetten. He’s a good but righteous man. He’s kind and amiable; he’s fond of his wife but he’s not a lover. He treats her as an enjoyable and precious object. He’s only interested in his career in the stupidest way. In a French novel, Innstetten would have taken his pretty young wife with him to attend parties, socialize and make himself known. She would have been an asset; they could have worked as a team. Here, he works hard to succeed, which leads him to leave Effi behind and he does get promoted on merit, which always takes more time than getting promoted through playing with politics.

The society seems military; people surrender to rigid social rules, there’s no space for individuality. Think that this story is contemporary to Jude The Obscure, What Maisie Knew or La Bête humaine. The novel is like a tragedy by Racine: duty and society are more important than happiness and individual needs. I wouldn’t have wanted to live in that society; it’s so up tied; rigorous, it lacks warmth. Men and women are blindly obedient to duty and social conventions. In a way, Innstetten is also a victim of his education; he doesn’t act according to his heart but according to what he was taught to be right.

On the psychological side, there’s this thing about Innstetten being Frau von Briest’s ex-lover. I couldn’t help thinking of Freud. What are Innstetten’s motives in marrying Effi? Catching up with the daughter? Taking revenge? The old physician in Berlin claims that Effi looks exactly like her mother at her age. They barely knew each other when they got engaged; he didn’t love her. He just chose a wife the same way he would have chosen a horse or a dog, according to her breeding, upon her mother’s qualities. Why did Fontane add this detail at the beginning of the book? Effi Briest is a naturalist book; Zola is mentioned in the novel. Zola relies on heredity as a back bone of Les Rougon-Macquart. Does Fontane want to show that despite heredity, Effi IS NOT like her mother? The mother should have married Innstetten; they’re made in the same wood but he and Effi are an ill-matched couple.

Some things puzzled me in the novel. I didn’t quite understand the role of the Chinaman story. Is it to prove that women are weak creatures with poor nerves? Is it to illustrate Innstetten’s character? Is it “natural” for a German book, as part of the culture? The absence of gossip in Kessin also surprised me. Innstetten never knew. Why? Was it because people didn’t like him enough to tell him? Was it because people feared his reaction and protected Effi? Or is it because there was nothing to gossip about?

Fontane’s style is sometimes rigid too but with hints of his sense of humor, like here:

Innstetten actually wrote every day, as he had promised. The thing that made the receipt of his letters particularly pleasurable was the circumstance that he expected in return only one very short letter every week.

The dialogues can be very witty. But as soon as it comes to feelings love or bodily topics, he refrains. Was it dangerous to write about adultery at the time? Did he fear censorship? He’s a wonderful writer but full of restraint.

I’m used to reading foreign books but the culture here was unexpectedly far from my own. I come from a part of France with a strong German culture and for example, the descriptions of Christmases in Kessin reminded me of home. Is it because I’m not used to reading German literature? But I didn’t feel that alieness when I discovered Dutch literature in June. Really, I can’t nail the reason why I feel like this. I’m all brain with that book. It’s extremely well-written but really predictable. When you’ve read French classics, there’s a taste of déjà vu. I was wondering who would be the lover and had guessed the ending. I enjoyed reading it though, it’s an excellent book. Highly recommended.

Other reviews: Tom, from A Common Reader, Iris from Iris on books and participants following the rules of the readalong



German Lit Month: my entry for crime fiction week

November 10, 2011 20 comments

Die Therapie by Sebastian Fitzek, 2006 – Der Detektiv-Roman by Siegfried Kracauer. 1925

I didn’t know any German crime fiction writer and I had difficulties to choose a book for week two. So I used a basic method: go to a bookshop, browse the crime fiction shelves from A to Z and picking any book whose author had a Germanish name. I only found a novel by Sebastian Fitzek, Die Therapie and a non-fiction book by Siegfried Kracauer, Der Detektiv-Roman (1925). I bought both. A double disaster.

Fitzek is the German Patterson, the book is so bad it doesn’t deserve a review. End of story. The Kracauer’s cover is totally misleading. I expected an essay on the origins of crime fiction. I read the intro, I was fine. First page of first chapter, he was already referring to Kierkegaard. I tried to read further but I didn’t understand a word about what he was saying. I have to admit I’m a total zero when it comes to metaphysics. I’ve never been good at understanding philosophy, especially when it deals with time, metaphysics and theology. End of story. (bis)

That must be the shortest entry I’ve ever written about books. So it goes as Vonnegut would say. That leaves me with lots of questions: how is it possible that I couldn’t find any German crime fiction writer on the shelves when books in translations are so widely sold in France? How is it possible that I didn’t know any author? Why don’t they make it on the French market? Are French readers so put off by Derrick and Tatort that they wouldn’t buy German crime fiction books?

What’s your opinion?

The Passport by Herta Müller

November 8, 2011 27 comments

The Passport by Herta Müller. 122 pages. 1986.

How can I describe this? Consistent with the idea I had of Romania under Ceaucescu. My apologies to potential Romanian readers, but it’s true.

Herta Müller wrote The Passport in 1986, before she left Romania to immigrate to Western Germany. She’s a Romanian writer of the German speaking minority. (Do they also have the German nationality? That would explain that only a passport was needed to immigrate). The short biography in my French edition indicates she left because the regime was after her.

The original title, Der Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt, means The Man Is a Grand Pheasant on the Earth. The English title, The Passport, reflects the thin plot of the book, a man named Windisch and his desperate quest for a passport to immigrate in Germany. The original title reflects Müller’s incomprehensible but poetical style. Indeed, some paragraphs are made of words I all knew individually but had never seen put together in that particular order. Hence a feeling of being lost in an ocean of words and poetical images. Here are examples. (my translation)

Windisch feels the water giggle in his shoes.

Windisch feels the grain of sand in his skull. He makes it go to and fro from temple to temple.

The wind beats against the wood. It sews. The wind sews a bad in the ground.

Jesus sleeps on the cross besides the church door. When he wakes up, he’ll be old. The air in the village will be lighter than his naked skin.

Her prose is made of apple trees which swallow their apples (a metaphor for Communist countries?), of owls who circle around the houses of the dying, of crazy watermelons. And of course, there’s the “modernist” or “post-modernist” or whatever-the-term affectation:

The mill is silent. The walls are silent and the roof is silent. And the wheels are silent. Windisch has pressed the switch and put out the light. Between the wheels it is night. The dark air has swallowed the flour dust, the flies, the sacks. (translated by Martin Chalmers)

True, she writes well in sharp sentences full of images. I wonder how it sounds in audio version, by the way. The experience was moony which echoes the French cover of the novel. After passing through the curtain of unintelligible paragraphs, I could see the frame of the picture she wants to describe, a village in German-speaking Romania. Well, that’s not a place you’d want to stay.

Though it’s not said, the reader understands it takes place after the war, the wounds of the period still unhealed. Windisch and his wife Katharina got married after the war, when they came back to the village. He was in detention; she was in working camps in Russia. They got married not because they were in love but because they were alive whereas their legitimate fiancés, Barbara and Joseph, weren’t. Barbara died in Russia. Joseph never came back from the war. The door to the war time is ajar, enough for the reader to understand the horror of the experience, the violence, the cold, the hunger.

Everything in this village is repulsive. The villagers are nasty, racist, corrupt and illiterate. There is no warmth, no solidarity. None of them has a redeeming quality. To get a passport, the female relative (wife or daughter) must sleep with the clergyman to get the birth certificate, with the policeman to get the other official papers. The post-office clerk drinks the money of stamps and doesn’t process the sending of the letters. The mayor is corrupt too. You need to bribe in money or in kind (food or sex) at every stage of the process to get the precious key to freedom.

Racism is everywhere. The villagers want to live in Germany but despise the Germans. They say their women are worse than their worse women. They feel superior to their fellow Romanian citizens; they don’t consider themselves as Romanian, don’t speak the language and don’t intend to. You sure understand that a marriage between a Romanian and a German would be frowned upon, if not impossible. There’s hatred between the communities, the Romanians resent the condescendence of the German minority. Of course they’re anti-Semitic and also gossip about the Baptist community. Some villagers are wacked. Is it a consequence of consanguinity? Windisch’s wife is as ignorant as can be: when her daughter Amalia tells her she’s on the pill, she asks if she’s ill and needs pills. All in all, everything is depressing in this book.

As an aside, I’m wondering if there’s a connection between Windisch and Herta Müller. Windisch is a miller (Müller in German). Is he the author’s avatar? Hopefully not.

It’s a short book I almost abandoned page 39 and kept reading because it was short. I was bored; the prose put me off-balance at first and just put me off at last. I can see that Herta Müller is a gifted writer but that kind of prose isn’t for me. Genius for some, painful experience to me.

For a positive review, read Lisa’s take here.

Fame: A Novel in Nine Stories by Daniel Kehlmann

November 6, 2011 19 comments

Fame: A Novel in Nine Stories by Daniel Kehlmann. 2009. Original title: Ruhm. French title: Gloire.

This is my first read for the German Lit Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. I chose it after reading Guy’s review here. Fame is a strange exhilarating book. It’s made of nine different stories, each making sense as a stand-alone but taking an extra dimension when read among the others. Indeed, the stories bounce on each other, featuring recurring characters, one story explaining a detail included in another story or casually referring to an event that took place in another tale.

The recurring characters are a famous actor Ralph Tanner, an acclaimed writer Leo Richter and a successful writer of self-help books Miguel Auristos Blancos. They are either main characters in a story or side characters in others, impacting other people’s lives. It’s very well-constructed; it’s a real pleasure to cross-reference events, characters and to discover the network of relationships and events that tie them together. Seen Short Cuts by Robert Altman? That would be it.

Fame is a topic but not the only one. I enjoyed the interaction writer/character in Rosalie Goes Off to Die and in In Danger. Leo Richter isn’t a likeable character and his lover Elisabeth always fears she’ll end up as a character in one of his stories. I’ve always wondered how relatives and friends of writers handle that when it happens. Do they have the feeling that the author steals their lives and betrays them? Leo is a coward; he’s constantly ranting, moping and whining. And selfish too, not grateful at all that these readers who come and hear his lectures buy his books and allow him to pay the bills. He’s looking down on them, mocking their clothes, their questions, their conversation. There’s a huge gap between the quality of his literary work and the qualities of the man.

A recurring them is modern communications. It’s present in A Contribution to the Debate through Mollwitz, a nerd spending most of his awaken time commenting on forums and blogs. His avatar is mollwitt, the “translation” of his German name into English, as witz means witt. Several characters work for a cell phone company. It also explores the way we have the world within touch in our pocket with our web phone. We, bloggers know that, the virtual proximity with people we’ve never met and live on the other side of the planet.

Daniel Kehlmann also depicts the globalization of culture and of thinking through the Brazilian writer Miguel Auristos Blancos (Paolo Coehlo??) He writes self-help books and pseudo-philosophical works about accepting life and living in peace with yourself. His books appear in every story, in a way or another, whatever the country, whatever the décor or the social background of the characters. It made me think of bookstores in airport: look at them, you’ll find the same authors everywhere.

In How I Lied and Died, Kehlmann shows how cheating is easier with technologies and it reminded me of Jonathan Coe’s character who captures noises in airports to help cheaters make their spouse believe they are where they aren’t.

I’d like to focus a bit on Contribution to the Debate, probably my favorite story. It is a first person narrative by Mollwitz himself. It’s written in the language of nerds, full of English words. My mom wouldn’t understand half of it and I could imagine her complaining “Can’t they write in French? Don’t we have enough words?” Actually, I think the story can be pretty obscure for someone who doesn’t speak English and/or knows nothing about forums and blogs. (Since my mom meets both criteria, reading this would be like deciphering the Rosetta Stone). I wrote this – I who just learnt that the French word for “post” is “billet” – and then I wanted to include a quote and see how it looked like in English. (thanks Amazon “look inside”!!) So here is the opening paragraph of the story:

Là il va falloir que je re-monte en arrière. Sorry et : je sais bien que lithuania23 et icu_lop vont à nouveau se moquer de la longueur de ce post et bien sûr lordoftheflakes, ce troll, comme récemment dans son flame sur movieforum, mais je peux pas faire plus court et celui qu’est pressé, il a qu’à passer direct à la suite. Rencontrer des people ? Alors là attention !Je dois dire au préalable que je suis un fan hard-de-chez-core de ce forum. 24 carats, comme idée. Des types clean tels que moi et toi qui repèrent les celebs et en parlent : cool à profusion, vachement bien conçu, intéressant pour tout un chacun et ça fait aussi fonction de contrôle, pour ce qu’ils savent qu’ils sont scannés et peuvent pas se comporter comme je sais quoi. Ca fait des siècles que je voulais mettre un post ici, mais pas de problème, d’où problème. Or là-dessus le week-end dernier, et de suite, tous azimuts. Here I have to back up. Sorry: perfectly clear that lithuania23 and icu-lop will flame this posting for being too long; so will that troll lordoftheFlakes, just like he flamed on MovieForum, but I can’t do it shorter, and whoever’s in a hurry can just skip it. Meeting celebrities? Heads up!Must signal that I’m a huge hardcore fan of this forum. Platinium idea. Normal types like you and me who spot famous people and report on their sightings: chill, no? wicked idea, really well worked out, interesting to everyone and besides it acts like control, so they know they’re being scanned and can’t just goof off. Wanted to post here forever, only where to get the stuff. But then came last weekend, the whole load.

The English version has as many syntax errors and spoken language than the French but I think the French version is more obscure to the offline reader than the English. Unfortunately the “look inside” of Amazon Germany didn’t allow me to find the same quote in German. Are there all these English words in the original version or is it the work of the French translator? However, the reader understands that Mollwitz lives in an alternate reality as his real life is nonexistent. He lives with his tyrannical mother, has no friends and having a girl-friend seems out of the question.

The style varies from one story to the other, showing characters trapped in their lives and living through events due to the decisions made by other characters in another story. It’s full of spot on and witty remarks on life in general and on our modern world in particular. A delight.

German Literature Month in November: my selection

September 28, 2011 22 comments

After a moment of hesitation, I decided to participate to the German Reading Month hosted by Caroline (Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat) and Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life). It will take place in November and will overlap my EU Book Tour project. After Dutch literature in June, German-speaking literature in November.

I’m not well read in German literature. When I think of the German books I’ve read and loved, most of them are by Austrian or Czech writers (Zweig, Kafka, Schnitzler, Rilke). Honestly, I wasn’t thrilled by the few books from Germany I’ve read so far. The Sorrows of the Young Werther by Goethe? Romanticism isn’t my cup of tea. Mademoiselle de Scudéry by E.T.A. Hoffmann? Not a remarkable landmark in my reading history. The Left Handed Woman by Peter Handke? Brr, terrible experience. Death in Venice by Thomas Man? I can’t recall a single thing from the plot. And I didn’t even remember I had read The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum until I started investigating Heinrich Böll for this event.

I think this was all bad luck and I’m sure there must be German books I will enjoy. I never picked up the right ones, that’s all. Anyway, I looked for the German books on my shelves and on my wish lists. I’m terribly lazy, so I eliminated big books and here is the dream list.

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane (1895)

Caroline and Lizzy organize a readalong. I’ll probably read it at my own pace. Sorry Caroline and Lizzy, but reading determined chapters each week sounds like school and I’m not up for it. But I’m really interested in discovering Effi Briest.



Un mariage à Lyon by Stefan Zweig, a French collection of short stories including:

German Title

French Title

English Title

Die Hochzeit von Lyon (1927) Un mariage à Lyon A Wedding in Lyon (*)
Im Schnee (1901) Dans la neige In the Snow (*)
Das Kreuz (1906) La Croix The Cross (*)
Geschichte eines Untergangs (1910) Histoire d’une déchéance Twilight
Die Legende der dritten Taube (1916) La légende de la troisième colombe The Legend of the third Dove (*)
Episode am Genfer See (1919) Au bord du lac Léman By Lake Léman (*)
Der Zwang (1916) La Contrainte Constraint (*)

(*) I have no idea of the English title used by publishers, so I added the literal translation of the German title. I’ll never thank enough French publishers for sticking to literal translations of book titles most of the time. For a review of Twilight, read Guy’s post here.

Lettres à Lou Andreas-Salome by Rainer Maria Rilke

This small book is a collection of letters Rilke wrote to his beloved Lou Andreas-Salome. I love Rilke. There’s nothing else to say. I’m looking forward to this bath in his soothing and wise prose. I also enjoy that collection of tiny books by Mille et Une Nuits. I have other titles from it and they’re always enchanting. I owe them a great translation of Ovide.


Hotel Savoy by Josef Roth (1924)

I’ve had in mind to read a book by Josef Roth for a while and this one seems just great.

Beton by Thomas Bernhard (1982)

The English title is Concrete and the French one Béton. I added it to my TBR after Guy’s review. You can read it here.




Der Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt by Herta Müller (1994).

The French title is the translation of the German, L’homme est un grand faisan sur la terre. The English title, The Passport, is totally invented by the publisher. Indeed, the original title means Man is a great pheasant on the earth, which is much more intriguing in my opinion. I was intrigued by the title and interested in reading a book by the Nobel Prize Winner of 2009. 


Ruhm: Ein Roman in neun Geschichten by Daniel Kehlmann (2009)

The English title is Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes. The French title is Gloire. I expect a lot of fun with this collection of short stories by an Austrian writer. Another reading idea I owe to Guy. Here is the link to his review.



I wanted to try another Heinrich Böll but I wasn’t tempted the blurbs of the books available in paperback. Ooops.Now that I look at my list again, I realize I’m not going to discover a lot of books from Germany. Tant pis. Of course, I’m not sure I’ll be able to read all this in time but I’ll try. Most of the books are short.

If anyone has read one of these, I’m interested in your take.

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke

August 9, 2011 25 comments

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke. I found a pdf version on line, translated by William Needham.

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is not a Beach and Public Transport book. However, I read it noisy environments, on the beach, at the laundromat or with children playing around. From the first page, Rilke wrapped me in the silken bubble of his words and the bubbling of the outside world vanished in a quiet puff. Here are the opening lines:


September 11th, rue Toullier

Here, then, is where people come to live; I’d have thought it more a place to die in. I’ve been out. I’ve seen: hospitals. I saw a man reel and fall. People gathered round him, which spared me the rest. I saw a pregnant woman. She pushed herself heavily along beside a high warm wall, sometimes touching it as if to make sure it was still there. Yes, it was still there. And behind the wall? I looked on my map: ‘Maison d’Accouchement’. Fine. They’ll deliver her child; they’re able to do that. Further on, in rue Saint-Jacques, a large-sized building with a cupola. The map gave: ‘Val de Grâce, hôpital militaire’. I didn’t actually need to know that, but it does no harm. The lane began to smell on all sides. It smelled, so far as I could make out, partly of iodoform, partly of the grease from the pommes frites, and partly of fear. All cities smell in summer. Then I saw a house strangely blinded by cataracts. It was nowhere on my map, but over the door and still quite legible were the words: ‘Asyle de nuit’. Next to the entrance were the prices. I read them. It wasn’t expensive there.

We are here, in Paris wandering in the city streets with Malte Laurids Brigge. He’s a Danish citizen who lives poorly in Paris. To conjure up his anguish, he wanders restlessly in the streets and writes endlessly in his cheap room. He calls back childhood memories. There is no linear construction here, the memories come at random, in small scenes, images from the past intertwined with tales from the city. He goes to the library, mostly to read poetry and to feel in communion with other readers.

I am sitting here reading a poet. There are a great number of people in the room but one doesn’t notice them. They’re inside the books. Sometimes they move about in the pages like people turning over in their sleep between two dreams.

Malte’s childhood memories are phantasmagorical. They are set in old and strange castles filled with bizarre relatives. His mother was probably a little unbalanced and his rememberance is full of ghostly appearances and eccentric diners. As a reader, I couldn’t know if it was due to the perception of a child whose imagination was wild or who built his own explanation of situations he couldn’t grasp or if the memories were blurred. The castles are daunting with many rooms and corridors and remains of the past. It reminded me the atmosphere of Le Grand Meaulnes, sometimes.

Malte suffers from over-sensitivity. He perceives more than the common man. Where we can see, hear, touch, smell and taste, each perception pigeon-holed in its own category, he can mix sensations. I thought he could taste sounds, smell landscapes and taste the air around him. (The smell of the flowers was an unintelligible medley like a lot of different voices all at the same time.) With his extra perception, he feels the traces of the past in Paris, the remains of the people who lived there and especially their suffering.

The existence of the horrible in every atom of air. You breathe it in without being able to see it, but it condenses inside you, becomes hard, assumes pointed geometrical forms among your organs; for all the torments and horrors that happened at places of execution, in torture chambers, madhouses, operating rooms, under the arches of bridges in late autumn: all this has a tenacious permanence which endures for its own self and depends, jealous of everything else that exists, on its own terrible reality.

I can understand that, it happens to me sometimes when I visit places full of history or just old buildings. Every time I go to the Musée Jacquemart André, I almost expect to see Marcel Proust step out of a room. I’m not sure I could visit a concentration camp without being overwhelmed by what happened there. I’d feel like the people who died there are still lingering in the buildings claiming not to be forgotten.

Malte is disquieted by many things. He fears death and fights against this particular fear by reading the tales of famous death or of the death of relatives.

This excellent hotel [the Hôtel-Dieu, a hospital in Paris] is very old. In the days of King Clovis people were already dying here in what few beds there were. Now there are 559 beds to die in. It’s natural mass-production. With such a high number as that a single death doesn’t get the same attention; however, that isn’t what matters. Quantity is what matters. Who today still cares whether or not a death has been well put together? Nobody. Even the rich who, after all, can afford to attend to the details of dying are starting to grow slipshod and apathetic; the desire to have a death all of one’s own is becoming more and more infrequent. Only a while and it’ll become as rare as a life of one’s own.

He thinks people don’t take their death seriously when it is in them, lying from the beginning, waiting for its time to come. He seeks loneliness, he refuses to take part in the affairs of the world. Objects seem aggressive to him from time to time when his imagination takes the power.

It struck me that Rilke (1875-1926), Proust (1871-1922) and Kakfa (1883-1924) were contemporaries. I found Proust in Rilke when he describes Malte’s anguish. This passage reminded me the first night of the Narrator in his hotel room in Balbec (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower)

This always took place in one of those chance rooms which deserted me immediately when things were going badly for me, as if they were afraid of being questioned and of being implicated my nasty affairs. There I sat and I probably looked so dreadful that there was nothing that had the courage to acknowledge me; never once did the candle, which I had obligingly lit, show it wanted anything to do with me. It shone as if it were in an empty room. My last hope every time was the window.

Malte’s thoughts about Time, tickling, rich and yet easily spent also brought me back to Proust. I enjoyed the story of Nicolaï Kousmitch, Malte’s former neighbour. Nicolaï once calculated how many seconds he would still live on a 50 years basis. The number was such that he felt really rich. But doing a weekly accounts of time expenses, he soon realises that time goes by very quickly, that he’s not sure to make the best of it. Nicolaï becomes acutely aware of the time passing by, sensing the seconds fading away in a cold draft and the Earth rotating. The notion of Time is very present in Proust too.

I found Proust in a specific passage when the young Malte is feverish. It reminded me of the Narrator’s constant illness, his need to rest in afternoons, his thoughts wandering. Malte also encounters sleepless nights, just like the Narrator. I’m currently reading Proust, so the images are fresh in my mind and this one also sounded very Proustian to me:

It must have been one of those early mornings that July brings—hours when things are rested and there’s something joyful and spontaneous happening everywhere. Millions of small irrepressible movements collect in the most convincing mosaic of Being; things leap and merge into one another and soar high in the sky, and their coolness makes the shadows distinct and gives the sun a light spiritual appearance. In the garden there is nothing that stands out from the rest, the effect is overall and you need to be in everything and to not miss any of it.

My memories of Kafka are more distant. But I couldn’t help thinking about him when I read about fears, frightening objects and of course the castles.

The three of them are really cerebral. Many things happen in their minds and they look into themselves to understand the mystery of life, to cope with their disquiet and their panic attacks. They have a rich inner world and it’s the source of their art. They differ on one point: religion. Rilke often refers to God, the love of God humans can feel. It’s absent in Proust – I don’t think he was religious and mysticism wasn’t appealing to him. I don’t remember it as being essential in Kafka.

I have to admit that The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge was a bit out of my league. I felt like I only scratched its surface, without understanding its deep meaning. I didn’t fully understand the last 50 pages, I got lost. I’m not very good at abstract thinking when it doesn’t involve figures. I grasped something about love and that being loved was being imprisoned and loving someone was putting them in a prison too. But that’s it. There are also a lot of literary references. I caught some of them (Verlaine, Baudelaire, The Letters of a Portuguese Nun) but I missed the others. Who is Bettina? Brentano’s wife? I’m not well-read in German literature and it prevented me from diving further in Rilke’s thinking.

I’m glad I found an English translation online, I have dozens of quotes and I would have felt really frustrated not to give a glimpse of Rilke’s incredible style. I’m not a great reader of poetry but here, it’s everywhere, filling the text with wonderful images, adding an extra dimension to his thoughts. He managed to pass on some of his extra-vision, the gift artists have to look at reality with different eyes.

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