Category Archives: Hofmann, Michael (translator)

Sometimes my father loves us, and sometimes he doesn’t.

Child of all Nations, by Irmgard Keun and translated by Michael Hofmann

I wrote up Child of All Nations as part of my recent May roundup post, but it was so good I thought it deserved a bit more attention. More accurately, it was so quotable I thought it deserved a few more quotes.

Child is narrated by Kully, an intelligent young girl with a handy gift for languages. Her father is a writer and a well-regarded one. Well-regarded in literary circles anyway, not so much in 1930s Nazi Germany.

He has to flee, which means his wife and their young daughter Kully have to flee too. The problem is, just because Germany doesn’t want them any more doesn’t mean anywhere else does. So they join that vast movement of refugees criss-crossing Europe, doing whatever they can to keep one step ahead of destitution and deportation.

My mother and I spend a lot of time sitting on benches. We open our mouths to let the sun shine into them; then we eat the sunshine, and our bellies feel full of warm happy life. My father didn’t feel like eating sunshine. He wanted to sit in the café Bazaar and drink slivovitz, which he finds more warming than any amount of sunshine.

Kully’s father, clearly modelled closely on Joseph Roth, is keen to maintain a certain lifestyle. He dreams of Hollywood adaptations and international recognition. In the meantime he spends the little money they have on a lifestyle he can’t remotely afford. Drink, women, café culture. His life still holds a certain shabby glamour while Kully’s is lit by her childish imagination. For her mother it’s a bleaker existence.

My mother didn’t want to play anything with me any more. Normally we play all the time. We play: how many beds have you slept in? Or: how many trains have you been on? … Three times my mother forgot a train from Prague to Budapest and a train from Lvov to Warsaw that we took with Manya. Then she forgot the bed in Bruges which was made of iron and had golden knobs, and where we had to lie so close that we didn’t know any more which was me and which was my mother.

The family travel from country to country. When they arrive they check into a hotel and eat in its restaurants. They rely on running up the hotel bill while Kully’s father tries to get money off whatever local contacts he can find. When the local contacts run out he leaves Kully and her mother behind, human collateral, while he ranges further afield in search of money to pay the bill with. To keep getting away with it they have to maintain a certain level of appearances or the hotels won’t let them run up those bills, but there’s a sense that they’re running out of road.

Child narrators are high risk but here it works well. Kully doesn’t judge her parents. For her they are as much a part of the structure of the world as the sun or the sky. At the same time she sees them all too clearly. Her father is charming, but more concerned with his own comforts than his family’s wellbeing. At the same time it’s his mix of charm and self-regard that helps him persuade others to advance another loan or payment on account. What makes him a bad husband and father is what makes him able to provide at all. It’s a compelling portrait.

Kully’s mother has it tougher. While Kully’s father is off enjoying himself with friends and other women she has to stay back at the hotel with Kully. She has to keep Kully safe and entertained, gradually withdrawing from the public life of the hotel as the staff start to wonder if their bill will ever be settled. She’s clearly depressed. She has good reason to be. Kully meanwhile is aware of her mother’s fragility and so just as her mother protects her she tries to protect her mother.

Finally there’s Kully herself. Intelligent and funny enough to be an entertaining narrator, but not too precocious as to be incredible. She’s moved country to country so often she’s barely educated, but speaks several languages. As I read I doubted either of her parents would survive the war, but I thought Kully had a pretty good chance.

The book dips a bit in the final quarter when a trip to the US takes the book briefly beyond the claustrophobia of Europe, but it’s a minor failing in what’s otherwise a strong read. Based on this I think Keun deserves far greater recognition than she’s received so it’s good to see Penguin Modern Classics redressing that a little.

One last quote, simply because I can:

She ordered bouillabaisse, which is a kind of soup that’s made out of the Mediterranean; all the creatures in the Mediterranean float around it in a hard-to-identify way, and some of them of course are poisonous. When people have had enough of life, they can choose to die either by mushrooms or bouillabaisse, but in either case I think they have to order it specially from the hotel kitchen.

We live in another age of refugees and mass movements of people. Decades after the events Keun portrays here one might hope they’d find better welcomes. They don’t. Like much fiction of the 1930s Child remains depressingly relevant.

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Filed under Hofmann, Michael (translator), Keun, Irmgard

My mother’s much prettier than I am, but I don’t cry so much.

May roundup

I’ve quite enjoyed doing the roundup posts so I decided to do another. Several of these books I also hope to give a proper write-up to later this week or early next.

Child of all Nations, by Irmgard Keun and translated by Michael Hofmann

It’s hard to go wrong with a Hofmann translation of a Keun, and I didn’t. It’s the 1930s. Kully and her parents can’t go back to Germany as her father’s books are now banned there, but nowhere else seems to want them much either.

Child narrators are tricky things but Keun pulls it off here. Kully is the right mix of innocence and experience beyond her years. The portrait of her parents, particularly her feckless father, through Kully’s eyes is nicely done. Any resemblance between the father and Joseph Roth is surely coincidental…

I plan to do a proper write-up of this one. I loved its clever evocation of the tightrope faced by these unlikely refugees, always trying to maintain appearances just enough to keep the hotel manager from insisting on the bill being settled before that next hoped-for cheque or loan comes in. Kully’s pragmatism is frequently heartbreaking:

It’s warm and we’re hungry. We can’t leave, because we can’t pay the hotel bill. We can’t enter any other country, but we can’t stay here either. Perhaps we’ll be thrown into prison, and then we’ll be fed.

Keun though measures the bleakness with comedy, one of the advantages of a child narrator. Here’s one example of that:

Often we have no idea how long we’ve spent in a place. There’s only one unpleasant way of finding out, which is via the hotel bill. Then it always turns out we’ve been there much longer than we thought.

Highly recommended.

The City and the City, by China Miéville

I’d meant to read this for ages but was finally prompted to do so by the recent TV adaptation (which I’ve only now started watching). I was careful not to watch the TV version ahead of reading the book, but based on publicity materials alone I still saw David Morrissey’s face when I imagined the lead character.

Besel and Ul Qoma are two cities in an unspecified East-European or Balkan state. The twist however is that the two cities occupy the same geography. Some streets are categorised as being only in Besel, some only in Ul Qoma, some are shared between the two. The inhabitants of each city ignore the other by an act of will, only seeing their own.

It’s a surprisingly powerful metaphor, not just for the lunacy of many ethnic divisions in the world today but also for how often in real life we choose to ignore other cities that cohabit with our own. The homeless and the ultra-rich may occupy the same physical London, but the truth is they are easily as separate as the people of Besel and Ul Qoma. Perhaps more so since they rarely even share the same physical spaces and so don’t have to actively ignore each other.

Miéville explores his setting with what starts out as a deliberately conventional crime story before getting deeper into the strangeness and for me it worked very well. I don’t have a lot of quotes for this one, perhaps as most of them don’t make much sense out of context, but I enjoyed it and I think others might too even if they wouldn’t normally read SF.

When I reached the tar-painted front where Corwi waited with an unhappy-looking man, we stood together in a near-deserted part of Besel city, surrounded by a busy unheard throng.

Care of Wooden Floors, by Will Wiles

This is another one set in an unspecified fictional East European city oddly enough, though that’s all it has in common with the Miéville. The narrator, a rather ordinary and rather messy man, is asked by his more successful friend Oskar to look after Oskar’s apartment for a few weeks while Oskar is in California settling his divorce.

Oskar is a modernist composer and his apartment is a sleek testimonial to the perfection of his life and his taste, particularly the gleaming wooden floors. To make sure his friend knows how to take care of it he’s left a series of notes with pointers for where to find coasters, how to feed the cats, and of course how to take care of the wooden floor.

Then the narrator spills a glass of wine…

There’s a lot in here. Friendship, architecture, aesthetics and the degree to which humans can lead perfectible lives. It’s a first novel so at times it’s a bit heavy on the similes (authors, let a thing just be a thing!) but that’s a common and forgivable fault in what overall is a clever and fun novel.

Here’s the narrator is looking for some string to use to play with the cats:

Then, I opened one of the kitchen drawers, an out-of-the-way one that looked as if it might contain string. Inside the drawer was a note from Oskar. Corkscrew – in drawer by sink. Torch, batteries – in bottom drawer under sink. 1st aid box, aspirin – in bathroom. Cleaning things, candles – in pantry. This drawer: spices. Indeed, the drawer contained spices, and that distinctive spice-rack melange of smells. And Oskar’s note, another note. Did all the drawers contain notes like this? I had taken cutlery from a drawer, and there had been no note. Curious, I tried the next drawer along, and there was another little note, identical to the first one except for: This drawer: Place mats. Coasters. Two lines under coasters.

But then, what do you expect from a composer whose most famous work is titled Variations on Tram Timetables?

A Quiet Place, by Seichi Matsumoto and translated by Louise Heal Kawai

This is an interesting one. It’s the story of a highly respected and respectable public servant who despite all that may not actually be a very good man.

Tsuneo Asai is a middle-aged career civil servant. He’s not fast-track, he’s not from the right background for that, but through sheer hard work and talent he’s climbed the ranks anyway and has reasonable hopes of becoming a department chief before retirement.

He believed that listening faithfully to one’s manager’s idle chit-chat was a mark of respect.

Then while he’s on a business trip he hears that his young wife has died suddenly of a heart attack. Even though he knew she had a weak heart it’s still a shock, made more puzzling when he discovers that she died in a neighbourhood that she had no obvious business being in. Asai decides to investigate, finally getting to know his wife only now she’s dead.

What follows is a mix of character study and crime novel (as in much good crime fiction of course). The wife’s death is plainly natural causes, but that doesn’t mean nothing odd was going on and Asai soon discovers that what he thought was a quiet housewife with a few polite hobbies may in fact have been a passionate and talented young woman that he barely knew.

A Quiet Place doesn’t start with a crime, just a mystery, but Asai’s curiosity will set in motion consequences he couldn’t have dreamt of. Before the book’s out it will get very dark indeed (though never gratuitous) and becomes a story of complacency, repression and ultimately obsession. Guy wrote a very good review of it here which has a particularly fine insight into the characterisation (or lack thereof) of Asai’s previous wife.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, by Soji Shimada and translated by Russ and Shika Mackenzie

I finished the month with a bit more Japanese crime, here a very classic locked room mystery. Perhaps too classic since it’s not actually a genre I care much about and this is a very good representation of it which means I didn’t hugely enjoy it.

The book opens with an excerpt from the diary of a reclusive artist. In it he reveals an insane plan to murder his daughters and step-daughters to create some kind of composite perfect woman. Those crimes happened, the daughters and step-daughters were murdered just as per his plan. The only wrinkle is that he was murdered first.

Forty years later in the mid-1970s two amateur detectives decide to solve these famous killings which (within the fiction) have now gripped Japan for decades. Matsumoto plays fair by the reader, including detailed floor plans, family trees and every clue needed to let the reader solve the mystery for themselves.

Unfortunately, I worked out the who and the why really quickly, surprisingly so given I wasn’t particularly trying. I didn’t quite get the how but that was a bit unlikely anyway (they always are in these things). Given that, I struggled to buy that police and amateurs alike had struggled for forty years to solve something most of which I got in about half an hour.

Still, I may have been lucky and admittedly I spotted a key bit of early misdirection (authors in this genre have to include all the clues you need, but there’s nothing that says they can’t try and distract you from them).

The two investigators themselves have very little personality, but that’s to be expected because really this is a puzzle-book where the reader is the real investigator. Underling this is the fact that at two points Shimada personally intervenes in the text:

Gentle Reader, Unusual as it may be for the author to intrude into the proceedings like this, there is something I should like to say at this point. All of the information required to solve the mystery is now in your hands, and, in fact, the crucial hint has been provided already. I wonder if you noticed it? My greatest fear is that I might already have told you too much about the case! But I dared to do that both for the sake of fairness of the game, and, of course, to provide you with a little help. Let me throw down the gauntlet: I challenge you to solve the mystery before the final chapters! And I wish you luck.

This wasn’t my book, but that’s mostly I think because it’s just not a genre that interests me. I’m a bit in the position of someone who doesn’t read SF criticising a space opera for having spaceships. In its field I suspect this is actually pretty good. If anyone reading this has read it and has any thoughts I’d be delighted to hear them.

And that’s it for May! It started stronger than it finished for me, but an interesting mix all the same.

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Filed under Architecture, Crime, Hofmann, Michael (translator), Japanese fiction, Keun, Irmgard, Matsumoto, Seichi, Miéville, China, SF, Shimada, Soji, Wiles, Will

Saying true things on half a page

What I Saw, by Joseph Roth

What I saw is a collection of short pieces of journalism by Joseph Roth, translated and ably introduced by Michael Hofmann, and containing Roth’s experiences of Berlin between the years 1920 and 1933 – the years of the Weimar Republic. The pieces are typically between three and five pages long, often focussing on one location or experience and drawing from it a short but memorable series of observations. It is a form of journalism not uncommon in Continental Europe, but is I think rarer in the English speaking world.

Short pieces of this kind are known as feuilletons. Roth was a master of the form, although famous now for his work as an author (I have only read his Hotel Savoy, which I recommend without reservation), Roth was a lifelong journalist with a passionate belief in the importance of newspapers. The feuilleton is a short piece, but it is not a slight piece. It is intended to amuse, but also to provoke and to enlighten. For Roth, the feuilleton was serious journalism, for all the subjects might be comic or mundane. As Roth himself said:

I don’t write “witty columns.” I paint the portrait of an age. That’s what great newspapers are there for. I’m not a reporter, I’m a journalist. I’m not an editorial writer, I’m a poet.

Today probably the most famous writer of feuilletons is Umberto Eco, who has a fondness for the form (and a talent for them, his collection How to Travel with a Salmon is essentially a collection of feuilletons for example).

Roth moved to Berlin in 1920, then to Paris in 1925, but continued to spend time in Berlin until 1933, when Hitler took power. His feuilletons of this period, collected in this volume and arranged by subject matter rather than chronology, capture then the Germany of the Weimar years, a Germany that he knew was fragile and beset with difficulties but one where the horrors of the future were of course yet unknown.

The pleasures of this collection lie in Roth’s skill as a writer, and in his keen observational eye which brings to life matters as disparate as night shelters for the homeless, department stores, a cafe frequented by intellectuals, Jewish refugees from the East, photographs of the city’s dead at police headquarters and much more. Roth was catholic in his choices of subject matter, recording the city and the lives of those within it, this collection is a fascinating record of what it was like to live in the Berlin of those times.

In the course of his columns, Roth takes us through the full range of Berliner life, including here on a journey through its late night dives:

Kirsch the burglar and Tegeler Willy and Apache Fritz are sitting at a table together, while the policeman stands and watches. At the bottom of the well-like passage , Elli’s sitting on someone’s lap, because she’s got new stockings today. If you’ve got new stockings, you’ve got to show them off. Her little blonde ringlets are combed down into her face. They hang there a little stiffly, like starched ruffles. I really think she wants nothing more from the world than to have half a kümmel inside her, and the knowledge that there is another half to come. Let her have it, please. My friend buys her some bread and butter. Now I think she’s happy beyond dreams. New stockings, a kümmel and some bread and butter. It really is an angels’ palace.

And later, in the same article:

Max says to the man in the cap: ‘I need a woman and a claw-jimmy.’ The claw-jimmy won’t be a problem. As early as tomorrow. But a woman – apparently that’s not so easy.
In case of any misunderstanding, Erna screeches: ‘I’m spoken for!’ Erna loves Franz. Erna got a gold filling a week ago, and she hasn’t stopped laughing since. She can’t just let her mouth hang open like a hungry crocodile’s! Oh, no! So if the world is to see her gold filling, Erna will just have to laugh. Erna laughs at the saddest things.

Here Roth brings not only the feel of the dives to life, but also their inhabitants, their small dreams, their vulgarity but also their humanity. Roth is a compassionate writer, it is only the harbingers of the new regime for whom he has no sympathy. Here he describes a bidder at an auction, a man who nearly comes to blows with a rival over a wood carving and a copper vat:

The man is not buying out of sentiment. He is, rather, an exemplar of the new times, in a short fur coat, cigar jammed between metal teeth, all calm and calculating: a schemer, a man working his percentages, confident of victory. God knows what his hands will make of those pots and plates and carvings, how the horrid monsters will change in his storehouses. Twentieth-century man can turn ducats out of all sorts of trash.

What is interesting with Roth’s journalism, is that although it is often full of humour, of warmth and affection, it is not frivolous. Roth was, I understand, highly paid for his pieces, certainly he himself took them very seriously (as the quote I opened this piece shows). His intent is not merely to amuse, but also to show us what he sees around him, to let us see through his eyes. As such, the humanity of his gaze is itself a part of his journalism. For Roth, journalism is not necessarily about objectivity, it is about reportage, it is about sharing a personal understanding so that we might understand too.

Frequently, his pieces while on the surface merely descriptive, contain on closer review social comment. In one piece he describes a park, talking of its benches, trees, park wardens. He describes those who use the park, few in the morning as the locals are at work then – just a handful of unemployed men, later some teenage girls, and come three in the afternoon mothers with their small children who play in the sand. It is a piece of careful observation of the inconsequential, and then we come to the following passage:

Even in Schiller Park the leaves drop from the trees in a timely fashion, in the autumn, but they are not left to lie. In the Tiergarten, for instance, a melancholy walker can positively wade through foliage. This sets up a highly poetic rustling and fills the spirit with mournfullness and a sense of transience. But in Schiller Park, the locals from the working-class district of Wedding gather up the leaves every evening, and dry them, and use them for winter fuel.
Rustling is strictly a luxury, as if poetry without central heating were a luxury.

Roth is still describing the park, the gathering of the leaves is one of the activities that occurs there, as is the children’s play or the habits of the park wardens. That said, Roth is also commenting on how poverty can destroy the sense of the aesthetic, how the appreciation of beauty can itself simply be another luxury. Roth is making an important point, in an article less than three pages long. That, in essence, is the point of a feuilleton. Similarly, in a piece on the Berlin pleasure industry in which Roth describes the various nightclubs of the city, he moves on to discuss the commercialisation of entertainment:

Yes, I had the sensation that somewhere there was some merciless force or organization — a commercial undertaking, of course — that implacably forced the whole population to nocturnal pleasures, as it were belabouring it with joys, while husbanding the raw material with extreme care, down to the very last scrap. Saxophonists who have lost their wind playing in the classy bars of the West End carry on playing to the middle class till they lose their hearing, and then they wind up in proletarian dives. Dancers start out reed thin, to slip slowly, in the fullness of time and their bodies, in accordance with a strict plan, down from the zones of prodigality to those where people keep count, to the third where people save their pennies, to the very lowest finally, where the expenditure of money is either an accident or a calamity.

Again, we move from the merely descriptive, to an analysis of wider forces, but we never leave behind how those forces impact on the lives of the people of Berlin.

Roth does not simply deal in the apparently trivial, he also engages with the Republic itself and with politics (though he treats politics with no more seriousness, nor any less, than he does the discussion of a railway junction). Roth writes pieces discussing how the city comes to a stop for the death of the president in 1925, or on the empty slogans of election campaigns. He satirises modernity, though too he celebrates it and sees something wonderful in human progress. This seems like an ambivalence, but rather I think he is a supporter of modernity when it is in service of human values, and suspicious of it when it seems to traduce those values.

The lives of our fathers’ generation were lived in such poor taste. But their children and grandchildren live in stupendously bracing conditions. Not even nature itself affords as much light and air as some of the new dwellings. For a bedroom there is a glass-walled studio. They dine in gyms. Rooms you would have sworn were tennis courts serve them as libraries and music rooms. Water whooshes in thousands of pipes. They do Swedish exercises in vast aquariums. They relax after meals on white operating tables. And in the evening concealed fluorescent tubes light the room so evenly that it is no longer illuminated, it is a pool of luminosity.

And in another piece:

Because the invention of the airplane was not a declaration of war on winged creatures, quite the opposite: It was fraternisation between man and eagle. The earliest miner did not barge his way sacrilegiously into the depths, he returned home to the womb of Mother Nature. What may have the appearance of a war against the elements is in fact union with the elements; man and nature becoming one. There is exhilaration in skyscrapers as much as on mountaintops.

Roth then is a satirist, but he is also something of a poet. Above all these things, however, he is a journalist and it is as that I think he would most have wished to be remembered.

The final piece in the collection is very different to what has gone before. Written in 1933 and titled “The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind” it is a furious piece written in reaction to book burnings carried out by the newly elected Third Reich. Roth writes proudly that German writers of Jewish descent have been defeated, and with them the “banner of the European mind”. Proudly, because with defeat comes no possibilty of collaboration, proudly because what they stood for was the European ideal, the ideal of the intellectual and that the life of the mind has meaning. For Roth, the Nazis are profoundly anti-intellectual, and in expelling the Jews they expel the best of German culture for German intellectual life has been in large part the product of its Jews.

For Roth then, the coming of the Nazis is a defeat for civilisation itself, the German Jew is inseparable from German culture, and in their quest for a pure German nation the Nazis are destroying that which made Germany a country worth living in. His piece is filled with horrifically prescient imagery, poison gas is used repeatedly as a metaphor, and it contains a roll call of defeated authors, poets and playwrights “fallen on the intellect’s field of honour. All of them, in the eyes of the German murderer and arsonist, share a common fault: their Jewish blood and their European intellect.” For Roth, the Nazis were not simply attacking the Jews, they were attacking the very principles that underpin European culture itself. Roth sees no possibilty of coexistence, no means by which the intellectual and the Nazi can live together, their arrival means the death of all he stands for as a Jewish intellectual:

It is only the feeblest dilettantes who flourish in the swastika’s shadow, in the bloody glow cast by the ash heaps in which we are consumed….

Roth, more than most, understood that when you begin by burning books you end by burning people. The final essay in this collection is a passionate defence of the importance of the intellectual, of the European ideal, of the Jew as a central component of European civilisation.

Looking above, I have quoted Roth a great deal in this piece, it’s hard not to, he’s a gifted writer and eminently quotable. In keeping with that, I end with a final quote on the role of the Jew in Germany, from The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind:

Many of us served in the war, many died. We have written for Germany, we have died for Germany. We have spilled our blood for Germany in two ways: the blood that runs in our veins, and the blood with which we write. We have sung Germany, the real Germany! And that is why today we are being burned by Germany!

What I Saw

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Filed under Berlin, Hofmann, Michael (translator), Personal canon, Reportage, Roth, Joseph