Category Archives: German Literature

He stood in front of the Tegel Prison gate and was free.

Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Alfred Döblin

I read this book badly; much worse than it deserved. When I read it in solid chunks of fifty or a hundred pages it fizzled and raced along, forcing me to work to keep up. When, as I mostly did, I read it in ten or twenty page slices it lost me instead in a sea of disconnected images.

That’s the risk you take with Modernism. It does rather make demands of you.

Berlin Alexanderplatz

Published in 1929, Berlin Alexanderplatz is the story of Franz Biberkopf, a newly released ex-convict determined to go straight. He’ll suffer three tremendous blows, is laid low, but ultimately comes to a kind of redemption, or at least a sense of meaning and self-awareness. Are these spoilers? If so blame Döblin, because the book opens with a foreword which forms part of the novel and in which Döblin sets all this forth. Like Nabokov’s much later novel in Laughter in the Dark, we know where we’re going, what’s interesting is how we get there.

That foreword is the first clue that we may not be in for a straightforward narrative here. Then again, the back of the book with its comparisons to Joyce and Dos Passos (and Dos Passos for me is easily the more relevant of those comparisons) gave that away anyway.

Franz leaves prison fearfully. He’s been institutionalised, and he doesn’t know how he’ll make it outside though he wants to do better than he did before he went in. He takes a tram into the centre, but is soon overwhelmed by the indifferent crowds, by the sights of people doing ordinary things like drinking beer and having lunch. He doesn’t know how to cope, outside the ordered environment of the prison.

A passing Jew takes pity on Franz, invites him into his home and gives him a moment’s refuge in which to find himself again. Franz, and the reader, listen to an old Jewish man tell a story, and by the end of it Franz is ready to head back into the streets and to take on the world. There won’t be many more examples of altruism in the book, and in a German book written in the late 1920s it’s hard not to see some significance in the only real act of kindness coming from Jews.

Berlin Alexanderplatz does have a plot; mostly concerning Franz’s attempt to go straight, his friends and girlfriends and how he becomes entangled against his will with crime once more. It’s actually not a bad story on that level, and it’s not a surprise it’s been made into a TV series and film because Franz’s journey is interesting in its own right.

The real interest though of Berlin Alexanderplatz is its evocation of Berlin as a city. Döblin draws heavily on film techniques of his day, with the novelist’s eye panning like a camera across scenes and with frequent use of montage. Descriptions merge with fragments of adverts, with overheard conversations, fragments of newspapers, even with street signs. Here’s an early example:

From the south the Rosenthaler Strasse runs into the square. Across the way Aschinger provides food as well as beer to drink, music, and wholesale bakery. Fish are nutritious, some are happy when they have fish, and others are unable to eat it, eat more fish, the healthy slimming dish. Ladies’ stockings, genuine artificial silk, here you have a fountain pen with a 14- carat gold point.

Genuine artificial silk, how can you resist?

Berlin is awash with politics and people trying to make a Deutschmark. They all rub against each other, live-stock dealers, thieves, communists, ex-soldiers, the revolutionary left and the far right. Among all this Franz is trying to find his own place, at one point selling gay magazines, at another necktie holders, whatever it takes to get along.

Two days later it is warmer. Franz, who has sold his overcoat and is wearing thick underwear, which Lina got him somewhere, stands on the Rosenthaler Platz in front of Fabish & Co., high class men’s tailoring to measure, excellent work and low prices are the characteristic of our products. Franz is hawking necktieholders. He reels off his patter:

‘Why does the smart man in the West End wear a bow tie when the proletarian doesn’t? Ladies and gents, right up here, you too, Fraulein, and that lady with her husband, children under age admitted without extra charge. Why doesn’t the proletarian wear bow ties? Because he can’t tie ‘em. Then he has to buy a tie-holder, and after he’s bought it, it’s no good and he can’t tie his tie with it. That’s swindling. It makes the people bitter; it pushes Germany still deeper into poverty than she is already. But why don’t they wear those big tie-holders? Because nobody wants to put a dustpan around his neck. No man or woman wants that, not even the baby, if he could speak for himself. Please don’t laugh at that ladies and gents, don’t laugh, we don’t know what’s going on in that dear little child brain. Oh Lord, the dear little head, the little head and the little curls, it’s pretty, ain’t it, but when you have to pay alimony, it’s not to be laughed at, that gets a man into trouble. Go and buy yourself a tie like this at Tietz’s or Wertheim’s or, if you don’t want to buy it from Jews, get it somewhere else. I’m a Nordic, I am.’ He raises his hat, blond hair, red ears standing out, merry bull’s eyes. ‘The big shops don’t have to get me to advertise them, they can exist without me. Buy a tie like the one I have here, and then decide how you’re going to tie it tomorrow morning.’

The patter continues for another page and a half or so, often quite funny, but then that’s part of the point of patter. Notice the little dig against the Jews there, the assertion of racial purity. Later Franz changes profession again:

Franz now peddles Nationalist pro-Nordic newspapers He is not against the Jews, but he is for law and order.

Franz isn’t in fact “against the Jews”, and he knows perfectly well it was Jews who first helped him when he left prison. Franz though is not a reflective man, and if a little anti-Semitism helps pay the rent he’s not the sort to think about any wider issues that might come with that.

In Döblin’s Berlin everyone is hustling in one way or another. Crippled veterans of the Great War beg in the streets; those with jobs mostly seem to be just getting by while pimps and burglars are leading the good life. Berlin is a vast human hive, permeated by adverts, noise and bustle.

Everywhere there are building works, rents are going through the roof, empty political slogans are disgregarded while the promises of literature and philosophy are packaged and commoditised and sold in the same way as ale or life insurance. There’s an extraordinary three page section, too long to quote here, which merges all these elements and more cutting between adverts, description, court rulings, and tiny vignettes showing the marital problems of a couple running a shoe business and the tensions between a poor lawyer and his cleaning lady.

In one harrowing sequence Döblin’s gaze wanders into a slaughterhouse, where he follows cows, pigs, sheep and lambs all going to the slaughter. He observes them dispassionately, no different to how he regards the people who will later eat them. What separates us from them? Perhaps just that we can kill them, and they do not know that and cannot in any event kill us. Döblin’s gaze is not without compassion, but those he watches largely have none.

At these times the narrative wanders like a camera. When that takes you inside the slaughterhouse it’s chilling, when it enters homes and shows neighbours packed in together it’s fascinating. Here’s an example, from the end of a five and a half page passage:

At the very top a tripe butcher, where of course there’s a bad smell and also the howling of children and plenty of alcohol. Next door a baker’s apprentice with his wife, an employee in a printing shop, she has inflammation of the ovaries. Wonder what those two get out of life? Well, first of all , they get each other, then last Sunday a music-hall show and a film, then this or that social meeting and a visit to his parents. Nothing else? Well now, don’t drop dead, sir. Add to that nice weather, bad weather, country picnics, standing in front of the stove, eating breakfast and so on. And what more do you get, you, captain, general, jockey, whoever you are? Don’t fool yourself.

Here’s a slightly different illustration of how Döblin applies this technique:

Opposite, in front of the little Web Radio Store – till further notice free charging of batteries – there stands a pale young woman, her hat pulled down over her face, she seems to be thinking intensely. The driver of the big black and white taxi standing nearby thinks to himself: Is she wondering now whether she ought to take a taxi, and if she has enough with her or is she waiting for somebody? But what she does is to twist about in her velvet coat as if her body were being wrenched, then she walks on again, she’s unwell, that’s all, and has the cramps, as usual. She is about to take her teacher’s examination, today she would have liked to stay at home with a hot water bottle, she’ll be better tonight, anyway.

What this passage does is show the difference between film and literature. Film can show the outside of things, and does so much more efficiently than language can. Film though can’t show us what’s on the inside, and so Döblin uses his language-camera to show us the Berlin not just of people’s homes and streets, but of their thoughts too.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is then a challenging novel. It demands close concentration, and when I couldn’t do that the result was that I became deeply confused about who was who and what was going on. When I did pay attention though, it unpacked itself into a brutal vision of the life of a city, and showed itself as a huge accomplishment.

It’s a moral book. That’s clear from the outset of course, when we’re told that Franz will receive three setbacks on his path to self-knowledge, but it’s present too in a frequent use of the most powerful biblical language and imagery, applied to lives as far from biblical as one can imagine.

The last 150 pages or so of Berlin Alexanderplatz I read over a weekend, and it was a joy. I read while listening to early Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, to Bix Beiderbecke with Frankie Trumbauer, and to Jelly Roll Morton. They work with it, because the book itself is a form of jazz, pushing its own boundaries and veering so far on tangents you wonder how it will ever get back to the main themes and yet it does. It pulses, full of rude life and the vitality of a new century in which anything, everything, is possible.

Is it worth reading, given the challenge it represents? I think so, yes, but again like the best jazz it’s not background music to listen to while making polite dinner conversation. It’s not a book that goes down easily; it’s not tasteful. Franz Biberkopf is in many ways as unsympathetic as a protagonist can be (particularly as details of his past crimes and his propensity to violence against women become clearer), and yet he is the spirit of his age, hustling and prepared to do whatever he needs to, steeped in blood and error yet perhaps not beyond hope.

Is it still relevant? Here’s a final quote, taken from a diatribe from one of Franz’s political friends which Franz only part listens to:

Not the satisfaction of human needs, but the expectation of profit is at the hands of modern production. Every technical advance multiplies the wealth of of the possessing classes to an infinite degree, in shameless contrast to the misery of vast sections of the community.

As I write this some 83 or so years have passed since this was published. Sadly, despite that great passage of time, it remains a contemporary novel.

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Filed under Berlin, Döblin, Alfred, German Literature, Modernist Fiction

a case of chess poisoning

Chess, by Stefan Zweig and translated by Anthea Bell

I loved Stefan Zweig’s novella Burning Secret. It was melodramatic, but successfully so with Zweig painting a subtle but intense psychological portrait of obsession and desire. I agree with Michael Hofmann that Zweig’s no Arthur Schnitzler, but literature isn’t a competition.

Anthea Bell is among my favourite translators. In fact, seeing her name on a book makes me more likely to read it. She is extremely talented and chooses interesting works to translate.

Chess (also known as The Royal Game, and as Chess Story) is probably Zweig’s best known novella. It’s a study of obsession, it’s translated by Anthea Bell. It’s been generally well received in the blogosphere by bloggers whose recommendations I put a lot of weight on. What’s not to look forward to?

Well, for me the answer was the plot, psychology and characterisation none of which worked. On a more positive note the translation is of course excellent and it’s short. Brevity is generally a virtue, but it’s a particular virtue in bad books.

The narrator is a passenger on an ocean liner. He discovers that among his fellow passengers is Chess world champion Mirko Czentovic. Czentovic is a Slavonian peasant by background, utterly lacking in the slightest hint of intelligence or sophistication, but on the chessboard nobody can defeat him. Somehow this oaf has risen from remote obscurity to dominate his social and cultural superiors and to sweep all opponents before him.

For the moment he rose from the chessboard, where he was an incomparable master, Czentovic became a hopelessly grotesque and almost comic figure; despite his formal black suit, his ostentatious tie with its rather flashy tie-pin, and his carefully manicured fingers, in conduct and manner he was still the dull-witted country boy who used to sweep the priest’s living room in the village. To the amusement and annoyance of his chess-playing colleagues, he clumsily and with positively shameless impudence sought to make as much money as he could from his gift and his fame, displaying a petty and often vulgar greed.

… the knowledge that he had defeated all these clever, intellectual men, dazzling speakers and writers in their own field, and above all the tangible knowledge that he earned more than they did, turned his original insecurity into a cold and usually ostentatious pride.

What I find interesting in this passage is the extraordinary depth of snobbery it displays. I’m not immune to snobbery myself of course. My reaction might not be much different to the narrator’s (and obviously the narrator isn’t Zweig, though interestingly the text at times playfully implies it might be). Despite my own failings though the condescension is so dense here it suffocates.

As portrayed Czentovic is a peasant lacking any great abilities in life save one. Is it so blameworthy that he should seek to profit from that sole gift? Is it so praiseworthy that his socially superior opponents are more disdainful of money, a resource which unlike Czentovic they were born with? Czentovic’s real crime here is his “shameful impudence” in defeating men the narrator clearly considers his betters. The problem isn’t chess, it’s class.

The narrator is an amateur chessplayer himself and has an interest in obsessive personality types. He decides he wants to meet Czentovic, better yet play chess with him. Czentovic though only plays for money, his rates are high and he has no interest in small talk.

Luck strikes when the narrator discovers that he’s not the only one keen to see Czentovic play. In particular he meets a self-confident American engineer who wants to test his own ability against a master. A group of passengers forms, with the American paying Czentovic’s price, and a game is arranged.

On the one side then Czentovic, and on the other an alliance of players funded by the American and banded together to defeat this brute from Central Europe who scorns all values save victory. Obviously I’m not drawing any parallels here.

It’s no spoiler to say that Czentovic at first sweeps the board with them. The only obstacle to his relentless rise to domination comes from advice given to the allies by an onlooker who can’t hold himself back from commenting. When the allies follow this stranger’s suggestions they stop Czentovic’s advance and suddenly the allies have a fighting chance of holding him.

The onlooker is described in the text as Dr B, but who is he? How did he become so able at Chess that he can force a grandmaster to a draw, perhaps even defeat him, and yet nobody has heard of him? Can it be true this is the first time he has played in 20 years? These questions are the real book, to which all else so far has been just preparation. The narrator seeks out this anonymous master and discovers the terrible story of how he gained such extraordinary ability.

The line between terrible and silly can be a thin one. Here Dr B’s story involves confinement by Nazis, torture by way of sensory deprivation and chess as a means of intellectual escape. I won’t say more as to explain too much would risk damaging a future reader’s enjoyment of the book. I can say that it allows some nice ironies where chess with its constrained space comprised of set dimensions and permitted moves becomes a limitless domain of pure mind quite separate to the imprisoned self.

Zweig died in 1942. Chess was published posthumously. At the time of writing then he didn’t know that Hitler would be defeated. If one remembers that, this becomes a work of fevered despair. Czentovic is unstoppable, except by a man who is a psychological wreck. Dr B is in a sense the European intellectual (perhaps even more specifically the Jewish intellectual), able to outwit Czentovic but fragile against his stolid cruelty. That’s a lot of weight for a slight story though.

The parable is clever, but it hangs off the story, which rapidly becomes ludicrous. Dr B’s backstory seems initially improbable (were the Gestapo really so prone to subtly undermining their prisoners’ sense of self, rather than simply brutalising them?) and swiftly becomes quite incredible as chess becomes both linchpin and threat to Dr B’s sanity. Zweig’s writing depends heavily on both plot and characterisation, and I didn’t believe in Dr B and I didn’t believe in what happened to him.

That leaves just the writing. Zweig certainly can write, but this feels not quite finished and I wonder if he’d have polished it further had he lived. Certainly it would have helped avoid sentences like this: “And now, for the first time, such a phenomenon, such a strange genius, or such an enigmatic fool, was physically close to me for the first time …”

I’m in a distinct minority on this one. John Self of The Asylum liked it and found the plot ultimately plausible. Trevor of themookseandthegripes was taken by it, and so was Will of Just William’s Luck. Tom of A Common Reader liked it too (both Will and Tom’s reviews are particularly worth reading for their discussion of symbolic elements of the novella). The only blog I’ve found so far (though I’m sure I’ve missed some) that shared my concerns was Sarah’s at A Rat in the Book Pile. Links in this paragraph are to the various reviews mentioned.

So, Chess. It’s very short, most readers love it and you may do so too. For me though it crosses the line from tragedy to comedy, without being funny. If you disagree, and if you’ve read it you probably do from what I’ve seen of other reviews, I’d be delighted to hear why I’m wrong.

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian Literature, Bell, Anthea (translator), German Literature, Novellas, Zweig, Stefan

We thought he would enter from the right…

Comedy in a Minor Key, by Hans Keilson and translated by Damion Searls

The trouble with realism in fiction is that reality is often distinctly undramatic, and indifferent to the importance of consistent theme and genre. A cop show aiming for realism will usually be gritty, but life isn’t just grit. A war novel aiming for realism may focus on mud, pain and random death, but rarely on cleaning duties and dirty jokes.

Enter Hans Keilson, and Comedy in a Minor Key. This isn’t a realist novel. It’s far too real for that.

Isn’t that a marvellous cover by the way? Hesperus Press, which for me is pretty much a badge of quality in publishing.

Wim and Marie are a young Dutch couple living on the outskirts of Amsterdam. It’s World War II and each night the British planes fly overhead on their way to bomb Germany. The Netherlands are occupied, and in a small act of resistance Wim and Marie have hidden Nico, a Jew, in their home. The trouble is Nico’s just died of natural causes. Now Wim and Marie have a corpse in their house.

What follows is an exceptionally light and subtle novella. In just over a 100 pages Keilson explores the psychology of everyone involved (including Nico, much of the book looks back to what led them all to their current situation). It’s funny, in places, but the danger is very real. Nico’s death is anticlimactic for Wim and Marie, and inconvenient, but they can’t be found with a dead Jew any more than they could with a living one.

As Wim makes arrangements with the family doctor to dispose of Nico’s corpse under a nearby park bench, Marie looks through the dead man’s few possessions. She realises how difficult it must have been for Nico, condemned to living silently in a single room, and the narrative slips back to Nico’s own perspective. In the face of everyday tedium how long can one feel grateful to people, even if they have saved your life?

When he came here, to this house, he would have happily taken a place on a pile of coal in a barn and been satisfied. Now he slept in a bed, ate at a table, was treated as a human being.
But the longer it lasted, the greater his demands grew. Since he couldn’t demand anything of the outer world – what he did receive was freely offered, almost a gift – his demands turned inward and more and more excessive. But people were helping him, they were helping him, didn’t that mean anything? Yes, it meant a lot. But also nothing. He was turning into nothing. It was unbearable. It meant his annihilation, his human annihilation, even if it – maybe – saved his life. The little thorn that grows invisibly in anyone who lives on the help and pity of others grew to gigantic proportions, became a javelin lodged deep in his flesh and hurting terribly.

“The little thorn that grows invisibly in anyone who lives on the help and pity of others”. Beautiful. It’s that kind of quiet yet precise observation that makes this book so good.

In hiding a fugitive Wim and Marie are doing something brave, in a sense heroic, but nothing is ever purely from one motive. Their resistance contact, Jop, appeals to each household he wants to place someone with in a slightly different way. With Wim he appeals to patriotic duty, with someone else to their Christian charity, to another he portrays it as a “purely humane act”. We all sometimes need a little push, to help us do the right thing. There’s vanity too, of course, and the need to feel part of things:

She had secretly imagined what it would be like on liberation day, the three of them arm in arm walking out of their house. Everyone would see right away what he was from his pale face, the colour of a shut-in, which his appearance only emphasised even more. How the neighbours and everyone in the street would look when he suddenly walked out of their house and strolled up and down the street with them. It would give them a little sense of satisfaction, and everyone who makes a sacrifice needs a little sense of satisfaction. And then you’d feel that you, you personally, even if only just a little bit, had won the war.

Keilson takes familiar themes and stories, war, resistance, the tension of living in secrecy, but then gives them a light and human tweak which makes them fresh and powerful. The doctor, standing over Nico’s body, asks Wim and Marie what Nico did for a living. Nico, Nicodemus, wasn’t that the name of one of the ancient rabbis he asks? Nico though wasn’t a rabbi, he was just a perfume salesman. A rabbi would have been more romantic, more dramatically fitting perhaps, but perfume salesmen need saving too.

It was like a comedy where you expect the hero to emerge onstage, bringing resolution, from the right. And out he comes from the left. Later, though, the audience members go home surprised, delighted, and a little bit wiser for the experience. They feel that the play did turn out a bit sad after all, at the very end. We thought he would enter from the right…

Hans Keilson has received a reasonable amount of attention to the blogosphere. I first heard of him with John Self’s review, here, but it was Will Rycroft at Just William’s Luck here who really sold me and persuaded me to read this. Both have my thanks. I’m pretty sure that other bloggers I follow have also covered this, but can’t now recall which. Apologies to anyone whose review I’ve not linked to and if I have missed you please let me know in the comments and I’ll correct that.

On a slightly related note, since writing the first draft of this I’ve noticed that I picked almost exactly the same quotes as Will did. For some reason I always find that slightly reassuring. Validation that if I’ve utterly missed the point at least I’ve missed it in company I suppose.

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Filed under German Literature, Keilson, Hans, Novellas

she did not want to worry

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, by Friedrich Christian Delius and translated by Jamie Bulloch

I read Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman twice. Each time I read it straight through without a pause. It’s the third title released by Peirene Press in 2010 and for me the best yet. If I’d read it a month earlier it would have made my end of year list.

The novella takes place in Rome in January 1943. A young German woman is living in a German speaking enclave. She is heavily pregnant. She came to Rome to be with her husband Gert who had returned from the Russian front with an injured leg.

Gert’s leg is unhealed and his dressings need to be changed daily. Even so within a day of the woman’s arrival her husband was called back to duty. Reverses in North Africa mean that every soldier is needed. Gert is a military clerk, and clerks can serve sitting down.

The woman then is on her own in a foreign city. Her husband in his letters urges her to enjoy its beauty, but it’s hard to enjoy even the most marvellous things when those you love are far away and in danger. The entire novella takes place in the space of a single afternoon’s walk as the woman goes from the convent where she is staying to a Lutheran church where a rare afternoon performance of Bach is to be held. Along the way she thinks, and tries not to think.

Portrait is written in an unconventional style. There are no chapters and no full stops. Each paragraph either simply breaks with the next picking up from it or ends in a comma. It’s not quite a stream of consciousness. It’s more a stream of experience. As the woman walks she sees familiar but little understood sights of Rome. She thinks about her past and about her family and husband. They have not been married long. She thinks too about the war and about the regime back home, but those thoughts are dangerous and she shrinks away from them.

Formatting constraints with WordPress prevent me showing how the paragraphs are arranged on the page in the actual book. There each paragraph opens with an indented line, which gives it a far more pleasing appearance on the page than these quotes suggest. Otherwise the book is up to Peirene’s usual standards in terms of its sheer physical quality.

again she thought how fortunate she was, provided with everything she needed, not starving, and not having to queue like the Roman housewives or their maids, how lucky she was that at this hour she was able to go to church, and even to a concert, and was only vexed for a second by the question of

why there is not enough bread in wartime, and why it is getting ever scarcer, seeing that ever more land is being conquered and ever more victories are being reported, after all the wheat is still growing, and the rye, you can see from the window of the train how all the fields were blooming and ripening, so where is the bread, but that was not a question you could ask, it was a test, it was God’s will, he provided the daily bread and allocated it,

The woman is devout. Her father is a minister and so will her husband be – if he survives the war. They are fortunate. She keeps reminding herself how fortunate they both are. He is serving in a comfortable billet in North Africa which is far better than the Russian front. She is in Rome and is largely spared the privations the locals and people back home are suffering. Still, she is not with her husband. She might never be again.

Announcements of victories and exhortations to more of the same are painted on the street walls. They are seen and heard ever more frequently.

and yet there were too many defeats, in Russia the picture was no longer one of great victories, they hardly spoke about victories any more, they only spoke of the length of the war, and what was the point of this dreadful war if there were to be no more victories, they could not imagine a war without victories,

since she was twelve years old the Fuhrer of the German Reich had proceeded from one triumph to the next, for as long as she could remember he had only won, conquered, been celebrated, cheered, even during church services thanks were offered up for the political and military successes too, and her husband would only be able to return soon if they were victorious, but if more defeats threatened on almost all fronts he would stay there, his life in ever-increasing danger, and she would have to wait longer and longer,

it was impossible to think what might become of the beautiful Germany withouth victories, thinking this was forbidden, she forbade herself from thinking it, and while her yearning flew south to Africa,

What it is permissible to think is key here. This is a loving young mother. She is only recently wed. She is pious and humble. She is not well educated, but she is a decent person. Of course, in 1943 she is also a tiny part of the Nazi state. The state doctrine sits uncomfortably with her faith. Both her father and husband have spoken critically of Hitler and of how he seems to put himself above god. Both have reflected that the bible contains no requirements to hate the Jews. She has no personal animus against them either.

They are all, as the phrase goes, good Germans. None of them actively support Hitler. In fact, they do not agree with him. Her father and husband both still do their duty though and every time the gap between national rhetoric and church teaching occurs to her she does her best to think of something else. She just wants a small and quiet life. No doubt millions of Germans feel very similarly.

On her own she could not work out what you were allowed and not allowed to say, what you should think and what you ought not to think, and how to cope with her ambivalent feelings, all she could do was to keep these things to herself until his return,

there is the weapon of silence and the weapon of words, she learnt with the League of German girls, and as she preferred to remain silent anyway, especially if she was not confident of her thoughts and her faint doubts were not assuaged, she knew what she had to do, to trust patiently in God, and continue undeterred along her path,

Portrait contains, fittingly enough, a marvellous portrait of the young woman. She is convincing and for me sympathetic. Her plight is an easy one to care about and to relate to. She’s not in any sense a bad person. None of the people she knows seem to be bad people. They’re all just keeping their heads down, doing the best they can and waiting for the war to end.

That’s what gives this book its power and impact. What Portrait addresses is life under totalitarianism. Here it’s Nazi Germany, but I’m not sure what’s explored is unique to that. There have been many regimes throughout history where it could be dangerous to say the wrong thing or even to think the wrong thought. All empires built on terror depend on the acquiescence of the bulk of their population. Most of those living under such systems will just be ordinary people trying to get on with their lives.

In a brief foreword to Portrait Meike Zeirvogel of Peirene Press talks about how if “we can relate to her we come close to understanding the forces that were shaping an entire generation.” That’s exactly right. That said this isn’t a didactic book and there’s a lot I’ve not talked about here (partly as it’s skilfully examined in the review at Just William’s blog here which convinced me to read this book).

There’s the contrast between the Germanic, protestant, Northern European culture and the Italian, Catholic, Southern European one. There’s the dizzying spectacle of antiquity undermining the certainties of the present and refusing to comply with her Lutheran expectations. Above all for me personally though there’s the insight into the mind and experience of a person who in a small way was part of what is widely seen as the greatest evil of the twentieth century (some would argue for Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot as having that honour, lovely century the twentieth).

In terms of style I was initially concerned that the lack of chapters and more critically the lack of full stops would seem gimmicky and contrived. In practice though I found the rhythm of the text had a sonorous flow to it. It was smooth to read and felt like a river of thought and experience. A river full of eddies, small diversions and strong undercurrents barely visible on the surface. The style is unusual, but it works.

Both times I read Portrait I read it straight through on a single sitting. Each Peirene title is designed to be capable of being read in that way. Here though I think it’s actually important to do so. This is a short work of 117 pages and its structure is such that interruptions would break that flow I spoke of above. I would strongly recommend that anyone tempted to read this put aside a couple of hours in which to do so. The paragraph structure intentionally avoids any breaks in the narrative. Imposing breaks from outside would damage it and I suspect reduce the impact considerably.

I’ve read all three of Peirene’s 2010 titles. Stone in a Landslide is here and Beside the Sea here. Comparisons between different authors from different countries are both pointless and a bit absurd, but so by and large is life so I’m going to make some anyway.

This is my favourite Peirene title to date. It’s the first I’ve read twice (though I’ve kept all of them as they all bear rereading) and I thought both in terms of style and content it really stood out. It’s a deceptively quiet work which is both highly particular (Nazism) but with wider resonance (how good people can help evil prosper). I’ve taken out a subscription to Peirene’s 2011 titles and given the quality of 2010′s offering I’m very much looking forward to them.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman. After writing this (thankfully after, or I’d have wondered what was left to say) I found several other reviews which may be of interest. Kimbofo’s is here. Andrew Blackman’s is here. Lizzy’s Literary Life’s is here. The Fiction Desk’s is here. Finally, Nicholas Lezard of the Guardian’s is here.

Just as I was about to press publish on this entry I saw that my copy of Peirene Title No. 4 had arrived. It’s Next World Novella, by Matthias Politycki and translated by Anthea Bell. I can’t wait.

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Filed under Delius, Friedrich Christian, German Literature, Novellas

At that very time Paris was the scene of the most heinous atrocities

E.T.A. Hoffman’s Mademoiselle de Scudéri is the earliest Western detective story that I’m aware of. Like many people I’d thought that honour went to Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. Like many people, I was wrong.

Mademoiselle de Scudéri was published in 1819, 22 years before Poe’s famous short story. It features an elderly amateur detective, overzealous police so certain of their theory of the crime that they risk a miscarriage of justice, and a series of apparently inexplicable murders. We’re in definite Christie territory here.

I heard about the book from Guy Savage’s blog His Futile Preoccupations. He described it here as interesting but disappointing. That was a good warning to have, because I was interested but knowing upfront that it wasn’t a novel to inspire love meant that I wasn’t disappointed.

So, what’s it about? Seventeenth Century Paris is recovering from an epidemic of poisonings. A special tribunal located in the Place de Grève has brought the culprits to justice, but using brutal methods. Paris is awash with paranoia and increasingly it’s the tribunal itself that people are frightened of. All this by the way is pretty much historically accurate.

Against this backdrop a new wave of terror emerges.

While the blood of the guilty and the merely suspect flowed in streams on the Place de Grève, and the poisonings finally became less and less frequent, a scourge of another sort appeared, spreading renewed consternation. A gang of thieves seemed determined to get its hands on all the jewels in town. No sooner had a piece of rich jewellery been bought than it mysteriously disappeared, however well it was guarded. But what was much more terrible, anyone who dared to carry jewels in the evening was robbed or even murdered on the open street or in the dark corridors of houses. Those who managed to escape with their lives testified that the blow of a fist to their heads had struck them down like a thunderbolt, and once they came round, they found they had been robbed, and were lying in a quite different place from where they had been struck.

The murder victims are all killed with a single dagger blow to the heart. The killer or killers show an almost supernatural knowledge of when men are going to meet their lovers and all too often those men never arrive or are found dead by their mistress’s house the next morning. Rumours of necromancy and black magic abound, and when a leading policeman nearly captures one of the gang only to see him disappear into an apparently solid wall the population are convinced that the criminals have the aid of Satan himself. The gang are nicknamed The Invisibles and all Paris is afraid of them (all wealthy Paris anyway, the two are often treated as if the same thing in this novel).

The tribunal ask for additional powers, the king comes near to granting them, but a short poem of Mademoiselle de Scudéri’s persuades him not to and soon after she is horrified to receive a glittering jewellery set and a letter from The Invisibles thanking her for protecting them. Her intent was just to protect the innocent from the excesses of the tribunal, but now she is involved.

I won’t recount the entire plot, so far we’re only around 20 pages or so in, but naturally the police arrest a suspect and naturally Mademoiselle de Scudéri suspects he may be innocent and that a miscarriage of justice is about to occur. Only she can see that truth, justice and good can prevail over deceit, tyranny and evil.

And if that last sentence sounded a little melodramatic then welcome to Mademoiselle de Scudéri. It’s German romantic literature. It is melodramatic. The noble of birth tend to nobility of character. Goodness within is reflected in beauty without, evil is generally reflected in ugliness. To be a lover is to be innocent.

Or perhaps not. There are subtexts here which suggest things may not be so clear. There are elements of the book I can’t discuss without spoilers but it is fair to say there are darker undercurrents. Paris may be a city of love but it’s also a city of superstition. Mademoiselle de Scudéri may seem to be proven predictably right but it’s not quite that simple. Evil is insidious and part of its power is to make us doubt that which used to seem so certain.

Mademoiselle de Scudéri is part of Hesperus Press’s “100 Pages” series of short classic novels. It’s a quick afternoon’s read, better yet a quick evening’s read since although it’s not a ghost story it’s best read as if it were one – when it’s dark and the normal world seems a little removed. It’s very much of its time and it’s literary tradition and so I’d also suggest being prepared for a lot of high emotion. By way of example here’s the police’s chief suspect, Olivier, telling his side of events to the good Mademoiselle:

Olivier was too disconsolate to speak. He buried his head in his hands and shook with sobs. Finally, forcing himself to fight down the wild grief that had gripped him, he continued his story.

Half the conversations in the book take place through tears. Characters swoon a lot too. Some may exclaim. It’s that sort of novel. In a longer work it would get irritating but at this length it’s bearable enough. The plot bears no real scrutiny and depends on the police missing a really pretty obvious connection between all the crimes; the characters are thin; the true culprit is obvious and the explanation for the seeming guilt of the accused man frankly a touch preposterous but then it is the first Western detective novel. These are all accusations one could throw at a lot of its spiritual descendants.

Guy ended his review saying that he was sure there were plenty of people who would love this story, but that he didn’t. I’m glad I read it. I found it genuinely interesting as a period piece and as an example of a body of literature (German romantic) that I don’t know that well, but I didn’t love it either. That’s ok, I didn’t expect to. At the end of the day Mademoiselle de Scudéri is a crowd pleaser and I don’t think it’s aiming to be great literature. I think it’s aiming to be just what it is, an entertainment that amuses for a few hours and that tells a good story that raises a few questions in the reader but not too many to be uncomfortable.

Mademoiselle de Scudéri. The Hesperus edition comes with an interesting foreword by Gilbert Adair and a fascinating introduction by the translator, Andrew Brown, which explores the darker ambiguities of the novel to very good effect. Despite my reservations it’s of obvious interest for anyone interested in the roots of the crime genre and is exactly the sort of thing I look at houses like Hesperus to be publishing.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Brown, Andrew (translator), Central European Literature, Crime Fiction, German Literature, Hoffmann, E.T.A., Novellas, Romantic Literature

… floating on a sea of milk and honey

Memoirs of a good-for-nothing, by Joseph von Eichendorff

Memoirs of a good-for-nothing is one of the most charming books I’ve read in ages. Written back in 1826, it’s the story of how an amiable idiot goes out to seek his fortune but instead finds love and adventure, without ever understanding anything that’s going on around him.

The novella opens with our hero waking up to his father’s complaints that once again he’s been sleeping while others worked, that he’s a good-for-nothing and should go out and earn his own living.

“So I’m a good-for-nothing, eh?” I retorted. “All right, then. I’ll go off and seek my fortune.”
The idea was indeed very much to my liking. In autumn and winter the yellowhammer used to sing a lament outside our window: “Farmer, please hire me! Farmer, please hire me!” But a short time ago I had seen him sitting proudly on top of the tree, singing his merry springtime song: “Farmer, keep your work!” – and this had given me the idea of making for the open road.

So he heads off down that road, singing and playing his fiddle. Before too long he meets two beautiful ladies, countesses it seems, who enjoy his happy folksong and invite him to join them in their carriage bound for Vienna – or more precisely to a palatial country estate just near Vienna.

The estate’s a confusing place, for our young man is fresh from a village and knows nothing of domestic servants or the doings of the nobility, but no matter, for he has fallen in love with the younger of the two ladies he just met and besides in no small time he has a job as an assistant gardener and then as tollkeeper to the estate – a position of some responsibility, even if largely his duties involve smoking a pipe and sitting outside in a particularly lurid dressing gown. Once he’s pulled up the vegetables in the tollhouse garden and planted flowers in their place, well, if it wasn’t for the difficulty of seeing his love (their stations are very different) he’d be a happy man.

But then, he’s almost always a happy man anyway. Our hero is prone to bursting into song on seeing a pretty view, plays his fiddle at the slightest provocation (or just for the sheer enjoyment of it), he jumps for joy when he has a happy thought, and he has a lot of happy thoughts. When sadness strikes him, or anger, it’s like a summer squall of rain, soon past. He cries bitter tears more than once in his journeys, but his heart is an optimistic one and he’s never sad for long.

And that, in a nutshell, is what makes this such a likeable book. The protagonist is incredibly naive, and none too bright, but he’s good natured and well meaning and I found him impossible to dislike. There’s such an overabundance of joy in this novel, sheer joy of life, in art and music, in love and in the German and Austrian countryside and its beauties, it’s a story free of cynicism and that’s no common thing.

Of course, life as a tollkeeper is not the end of our hero’s travels. Soon, believing his love’s heart belongs to another, he leaves for Italy with two itinerant painters, spends time in a remote mountain castle staffed with people he has no common language with but who seem to be expecting him, visits Rome where he has various adventures and generally gads about the place. He’s chased by a mysterious hunchback, his companions are stolen from him, all manner of incident occurs, none of which he has the remotest clue about.

I journeyed onwards day and night without rest. I had no time to collect my thoughts, for wherever we stopped, fresh horses were waiting ready harnessed; moreover I could not speak to the people, and my gesticulations served little purpose. Sometimes, when I was in the middle of an excellent meal at an inn, the postillion would blow his horn and I had to drop my knife and fork and jump back in the coach, without having the slightest notion where I was supposed to be going at such breakneck speed, or why.

There’s an air of Shakespearean comedy to much of this work. Our hero is pursued by people, but it’s wholly unclear for most of the book why, or even if they’re after the right man, and although he finds some of them frightening in truth none of them really seem all that menacing. Our hero isn’t a man prone to questions, or reflection for that matter, and for a good chunk of the novella he can’t speak the local language anyway, so though it’s obvious something’s going on it’s not until the end it’s terribly clear what (and I don’t think he ever really works it all out).

It doesn’t matter though, because Germany and Austria are beautiful, because a wandering man with a fiddle can cause a whole village to leap up and start dancing, and because whatever’s going on our hero is guided by love and by desire for adventure and he’s basically a good person. And this is not a story in which bad things happen to good people.

Much of Memoirs is very funny. The hero has a habit of falling asleep whenever nothing much seems to be going on, leading to him missing out on quite a lot that happens. His misunderstandings lead to bizarre and comical situations, and his own emotions are so changeable that at any moment he can plunge from joy to despair and back again. There’s also some wonderful set pieces. Here he’s in Rome, and encounters a parrot in an open window above him:

Then I tried to start up a conversation with the parrot, for it gave me great pleasure to watch him clamber up and own in his gilt cage and perform all manner of contortions, in the course of which he always contrived to trip over his big toe.
Suddenly he shouted “Furfante!”* at me, and even though he was only a stupid animal, this annoyed me. So I called him an insulting name in return, and we both got angry; the more I insulted him in German, the more he shrieked away in Italian.

There’s an equally marvellous sequence where, as he enjoys a secluded mountaintop view, a group of musicians creep up behind and strike up their instruments believing him to be an English nobleman on the Grand Tour and hoping to earn some money from him. The image of young English lords being surprised by lurking bands of mountaintop musicians was one I just couldn’t resist.

More seriously, it’s a work of German romanticism (a genre I know a bit, but not well). There’s a well written introduction by the translator, Ronald Taylor, where he writes that the essence of German romanticism is a Holy Trinity of Nature, Love and Art and their connection with the soul of the German people. The novel’s a paean of love to Germany, to the German nation, and while naturally it’s hard for a modern reader to read of German “national spirit” without unfortunate connotations creeping in, that’s not really von Eichendorff’s fault.

Memoirs makes a marvellous counterpoint to The Black Spider, both are nineteenth Century pastoral novels and both I think come from a common cultural tradition, but where one is a dark tale of divine retribution the other is an idyll in which good is rewarded and nobody is really very evil. It’s also a tremendous corrective. If you’re finding yourself bogged down in a literary great which is heavy going, or depressed by a tale of unusual bleakness or cynicism, then Memoirs is as bright a contrast as you might wish for.

It’s taken me a while to warm to Oneworld Classics, with my reading this year though I’m seeing how they live up to their title. It’s marvellous to see these works being translated, German classics, Italian ones, a wealth of European literature that has tended to be obscure to English speaking readers – and like The Black Spider this is a fresh and enjoyable translation. Couple all that with good paper and print and attractive covers, and I expect to be reading more of them as the year goes on.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Memoirs is full of folksongs, Eichendorff was primarily a poet and lyricist. I’ve not quoted those songs here, for reasons of space, but one of von Eichendorff’s poems (not from this book) can be found here, with different translations of it being set side by side. Interesting stuff.

Memoirs of a good-for-nothing

*Scoundrel. The endnote is in the original.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Central European Literature, German Literature, Novellas, Picaresque, Romantic Literature, von Eichendorff, Joseph