Well, I’m off to an unbelievably slow start with German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, given that we’re more than halfway through the month and this is my first post. I’m hoping I’ll get some more posts in before the month is out, but clearly myself and productivity are not friends right now.
Image from here
Firstly, The Glass Bees (Gläserne Bienen, 1957) by Ernst Junger (trans. Louise Bogan & Elizabeth Mayer, NYRB, 2000), which was frankly, completely terrifying. Generally I’m not one for sci-fi/speculative fiction and now I know why, because they scare me silly. Written in the 1950s, the story is set in an undisclosed time and place sometime in future. At the time of publication, my edition tells me it was dismissed as irrelevant. To which I can only respond:
And commend those critics for their optimism. See if you can find any contemporary parallels: a powerful and ruthless business man has developed advanced technology and uses this to assert control of society through media and entertainment. Now I think about it, a more appropriate David Tennant gif would have been:
The tale is narrated by Richard, a war veteran and ambiguous character, who is considering being employed by the Donald Trump/Rupert Murdoch hybrid business man Zapparoni as a security chief/spy on his workers:
“The people employed by Zapparoni were an extremely difficult lot. Engaged in a most peculiar kind of work – the handling of minute and often extremely intricate objects – they gradually developed an eccentric, over-scrupulous behaviour, and they developed personalities which took offense at motes in a sunbeam.”
Zapparoni uses microtechnology but he has also developed automatons who are more than human. There are those that look like him and enable him to be in more than one place at once, and those who are used to promote an idealised form through film and media:
“Thus one might say that these figures did not simply imitate the human form but carried it beyond its possibilities and dimensions…the movements and expressions indicated that nature had been studied and surpassed.”
Likewise, the titular bees are micro-robots much more efficient at collecting nectar than actual bees. This unstable reality is part of the novel’s overall feel of not being able to trust what you see and struggling to understand feelings that are evoked by such odd circumstances. Richard is a cavalry soldier, and as such is an anachronism, harking back to days of animal and human power when the world has moved on. He is virtually unemployable, which is what leads him to Zapparoni in the first place, wholly aware that if he takes the job, at some point he is likely to meet with an ‘accident’.
Events at his job interview are equally discombobulating, with the elderly Zapparoni living in surprisingly old-fashioned surroundings and sending Richard into the garden for a gruesome test. I won’t say much more for fear of spoilers as The Glass Bees is a short (209 pages in my edition), tightly written novel set over 2 days. It packs a lot into such a short space though, as Richard’s immediate experiences and reminiscences give much food for thought on the nature of human beings, their relationship with technology, how power is wielded, where morality lies… big questions which mean The Glass Bees certainly leads itself to re-reading.
It is not a bleak novel; there is an enduring faith in humankind:
“I came to recognise that one single human being, comprehended in his depth, who gives generously from the treasures of his heart, bestows on us more riches than Caesar or Alexander could ever conquer. Here is our kingdom, the best of monarchies, the best republic. Here is our garden, our happiness.”
However, this faith is constantly under assault and The Glass Bees acts as a stark warning on the human price of technological progress:
“Human perfection and technical perfection are incompatible. If we strive for one, we must sacrifice the other; there is, in any case, a parting of the ways. .. Technical perfection strives towards the calculable, human perfection towards the incalculable.”
I’m not sure we’ve really learnt the lessons The Glass Bees presents. As I said at the start, terrifying.
From a speculative future to a novel that shows the fallout of the recent past, The Emigrants (Die Ausgewanderten, 1992) by WG Sebald (trans. Michael Hulse, Harvill Press, 1996). The Emigrants is familiar territory for readers of Sebald, dealing with displacement, memory and loss with a deceptively simple voice and a narrative that blurs the lines between fiction and autobiography, complete with illustrative photographs. Narrated by an emigrant who comes to England and settles in Manchester, its four sections tell the stories of different emigrants with whom he comes into contact. The first section, ‘Dr Henry Selwyn’ tells of his eccentric landlord.
“Dr Selwyn liked to be out of doors, and especially in a flint-built hermitage in a remote corner of the garden, which he called his folly and which he had furnished with the essentials. But one morning just a week or so after we had moved in, I saw him standing at an open window of one of his rooms on the west side of the house. He had his spectacles on and was wearing a tartan dressing gown and a white neckerchief. He was aiming a gun with two inordinately long barrels up into the blue.”
As this passage captures, the short section (around 20 pages) is both whimsical and yet with an underlying sense of something much more serious. It shows how, following the second world war, what we see on the surface belies the enduring damage and pain that persists.
The second section ‘Paul Bereytyer’ begins with a suicide. The narrator’s childhood teacher has lain on the train tracks and the narrator pieces together his past in an attempt to understand why. Paul is a quarter Jewish and during the war “out of blind rage or even a sort of perversion” he returns to Berlin and gets called up into the artillery. What is truly haunting in this section is that the clues to his end are there all along for those who knew him:
“Railways had always meant a great deal to him – perhaps he felt they were headed for death. Timetables and directories, all the logistics of the railways, had at times been an obsession with him… I thought of the stations, tracks, goods depots and signal boxes that Paul had so often drawn on the blackboard and which we had to copy into our exercise books as carefully as we could.”
The third section tells the story of the narrator’s Great-Uncle Adelwarth who travels around the world but ultimately ends up in an institution. In the final section, ‘Max Ferber’, an artist tells the narrator the story of his mother and the impact of the holocaust on his family.
“Memory…makes ones head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.”
The Emigrants is an incredible novel. Sebald writes with simplicity yet great beauty, building a picture of enduring war wounds. He demonstrates how the legacy of conflict is still to be felt, if only we open our eyes to see it.
“I now sometimes feel that at that moment I beheld an image of death [it] lasted only a very short time, and passed over me like the shadow of a bird in flight.”
To end, the trailer for the most expensive German TV series ever made, apparently. It’s set during the Weimar Republic, I’m 4 episodes in and enjoying it so far (contains scenes of drug taking and sauciness):