The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum – Heinrich Boll (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #64)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum or, how violence develops and where it can lead by Heinrich Boll (1974, tr. Leila Vennewitz 1975) is a satire on anti-communist paranoia written in a reportage style. If that summary and the cumbersome title of the novel makes you feel like this:

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Stick with me. Boll manages to convey the story with a fast pace and a light touch which means that the narrative carries you along and you don’t feel bludgeoned with polemic. He also undercuts the objectivity that his narrator is proclaiming, questioning the facts that are presented, even when we know what has happened – that Katarina Blum has shot and killed Totges, a journalist for a (fictional) newspaper Die Zeitung.

“Let there not be too much talk about blood here, since only necessary differences in level are to regarded as inevitable; we would therefore direct the reader to television and movies and the appropriate musicals and gruesicals; if there is to be something fluid here, let it not be blood […] Totges was wearing  an improvised sheikh costume concocted from a rather worn sheet, and the effect of a lot of blood on a lot of white is well known; a pistol is then sure to act almost like  spray gun, and since in this instance the costume was made out of a large square of white cotton, modern painting or stage effects would seem to be more appropriate here than drainage. So be it. Those are the facts.”

How Katharina came to do such a thing is told from a variety of viewpoints, capturing the events of four days from when she meets Gotten, a bank robber and suspected radical at a party, to the time when she commits the murder. Die Zeitung spins its own story around events, outraged that one of their own has been killed. The newspaper reporting is comical:

“The pastor of Gemmelsbroich had the following to say: ‘I wouldn’t put anything past her. Her father was a Communist in disguise, and her mother, whom on compassionate grounds I employed for a time as a charwoman, stole the sacramental wine and carried on orgies in the sacristy with her lovers.’”

Yet at the same time this is the crux of satire. The newspaper is able to spin such tales, eagerly gobbled up by its readers, without censure. The print media both perpetuates and exacerbates the tragedy, as the lies spun around the ‘Red’ Gotten and Scarlet Woman Katharina cause the hard-working, honest Katharina to become so desperate as to take a life.

Of course, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum was written over 40 years ago so the reality it portrays is barely recognisable now. An irresponsible sensationalist press, whipping up public feeling, vilifying marginalised groups, passing judgement on female sexuality…nope, can’t think of a single contemporary parallel.

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“Everything will be done to avoid further blockages and unnecessary buildups of tension. It will probably not be possible to avoid them entirely.”

Much as I enjoyed the novel and fancy admire the brilliant mind of Kris Kristofferson, I think I’ll be skipping this made-for-TV adaptation (cue 80s-tastic trailer):

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“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” (Maya Angelou)

This week’s post is about novels which build on the untold stories of other novels. This was prompted by last week’s post where I looked at the The Plague by Albert Camus. I mentioned that there were essentially no women in the book but I neglected to say that there is another significant group missing from this Algeria-set tale: Arabs. In The Plague, Camus makes reference to events depicted in The Outsider (L’Etranger):

 “Grand had personally witnessed an odd scene that took place at the tobacconist’s. An animated conversation was in progress and the woman behind the counter started airing her views about a murder case that had created some stir in Algiers. A young commercial employee had killed an Algerian on a beach”

The Arab killed by Meursault in The Outsider is nameless. In The Meursault Investigation (2014, tr. John Cullen, 2015) Algerian writer Kamel Daoud has given him a name and expanded the events of The Outsider to show the fallout from the murder on the victim’s family.

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“Well, the original guy was such a good storyteller, he managed to make
people forget his crime, whereas the other one was a poor illiterate God created apparently for the sole purpose of taking a bullet and returning to dust – an anonymous person who didn’t even have the time to be given a name.”

Told by Harun, the victim’s brother, to a silent interlocutor in a bar, the story brings home the emotional fallout of a person – famous yet anonymous – being killed:

“My brother Musa was capable of parting the sea, and yet he died in insignificance, like a common bit player, on a beach that today has disappeared”

Yet it also questions why, in this touchstone of twentieth-century literature, those in the story and the readers of it do not interrogate what is depicted more:

“the court preferred judging a man who didn’t weep over his mother’s death to judging a man who killed an Arab”

The Meursault Investigation, despite its slim size (142 pages in my edition) is a hugely ambitious work. Obviously it is in conversation with The Outsider (from the outset with the opening line “Mama’s still alive today”, echoing Camus’s opener of “Mother died today”) but it is using this a starting point to explore issues around colonialism, post-colonialism, language (Daoud writes in French, not Arabic):

 “I’m going to take the stones from the old houses the colonists left behind, remove them one by one, and build my own house, my own language. The murderer’s words and expressions are my unclaimed goods. Besides, the country’s littered with words that don’t belong to anyone anymore. You see them on the facades of old stores, in yellowing books, on people’s faces, or transformed by the strange creole decolonisation produces.”

 Big themes, but Daoud explores them with a lightness of touch and a dry humour which stops it becoming unbearably heavy. Like Camus, he raises questions without offering trite answers. A worthy companion to the classic which inspired it.

 “I’m philosophising? Yes, yes I am. Your hero had a good understanding of that sort of thing; whether or not to commit murder is the only proper question for a philosopher, the only one he ought to ask. All the rest is chit chat. However, I’m only a man sitting in a bar. It’s the end of the day, the stars are coming out one by one, and the night has already given the sky a positively exhilarating depth.”

Both the books I’ve picked this week are quite serious, so let’s pause and spend some time with a drunk raconteur slightly less coherent than Harun:

Secondly, March by Geraldine Brooks (2006) the story of the missing father in Little Women, which won the Pulitzer. Prize-winning novels can be a mixed bag, and leave me feeling more than a little peevish*, wondering if the judges and I have even read the same book. Not in this instance, as March is both beautifully written and very readable.  But firstly, I need to get something off my chest. This is my edition:

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That Richard and Judy Book Club sticker is permanent. PERMANENT. O monstrous disfigurement! Removable stickers are bad enough: they’re not really removable, they leave a sticky mess and no matter how much I scrub, even if the sticky bit goes, there’s always a weird, oleaginous*disc-shaped mark left on the cover. They never tell me anything I want to know – in this case, that I’m reading something recommended by Richard and Judy. Why, publishers? WHY? No-one wants this! NO-ONE.

*deep breath*

 Back to March, which gives voice to the absent father in Little Women, and the year he spends away from home fighting in the American Civil War. A man of strong convictions who sees his family’s poverty as part of a wider cause and follows a vegan diet meaning all his little women have to do the same, he begins the war with ideals challenged but intact:

“If war can ever be said to be just, then this war is so; it is action for a moral cause, with the most rigorous of intellectual underpinnings. And yet everywhere I turn, I see injustice done in the waging of it.”

Brooks does not pull her punches on these injustices; at times March was harsh reading. March reflects on his life and how he has come to be involved in the fighting, which includes a violent awakening to the horrors of slavery. Unsurprisingly, the horrors continue during the conflict and March has to take difficult decisions that challenge his beliefs not only in social justice and moral causes, but in who he is as a man. At the same time, the portrait of Marmee is extended and complicated beyond the source novel. She is angry:

“I only let him do to me what men have ever done to women: march off to empty glory and hollow acclaim and leave us behind to pick up the pieces. The broken cities, the burned barns, the innocent injured beasts, the ruined bodies of the boys we bore and the men we lay with.”

Although Brooks doesn’t dwell on this, there is also the suggestion that Marmee is racist. Despite participating in the underground railway and supporting emancipation, when she arrives in Washington to see her husband and encounters free black people, she wonders: “are there no end to these people?” A bold move by Brooks, but one that results in flawed, complex characters who are wholly believable.

March is a sad book, but not depressing. Ultimately it is about endurance, against the odds, and how we hold together even when feeling utterly broken. Like Little Women, it is also about family, whether they are physically with us or not:

 “One day I hope to go back. To my wife, to my girls, but also to the man of moral certainty that I was…that innocent man, who knew with such clear confidence exactly what it was he was meant to do”

To end, what my own family sadly lacks is a catchy theme tune:

* Following last week’s post comments: today’s blog post was brought to you by the words peevish and oleaginous, thanks to Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest  🙂

“The problem with the world is that everyone is a few drinks behind.” (Humphrey Bogart)

This post is my contribution to the 1947 Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book, do check out their blogs and join in!

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Firstly, In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B Hughes, which I was inspired to pick up after reading Jacqui’s excellent review. Dix Steele is a war veteran who has recently moved to LA. He runs into one of his army buddies, Brub, who updates Dix on his career choice since the army:

“He came sharply into focus. The word had been a cold spear deliberately thrust into his brain. He heard his voice speak the cold, hard word. ‘Policeman?’ But they didn’t notice anything. They thought him surprised, as he was, more than surprised, startled and shocked.”

Why the problem with Brub being a policeman? Brub is investigating a strangler who is terrorising the young women of the city. Dix is intrigued by this and carefully questions his friend on the investigation, gleaning as much information as he dare. The third-person narration is from Dix’s point of view and we are privy to his disturbing thoughts, including his attitude to the strangler’s latest victim:

“The only exciting thing that had ever happened to her was to be raped and murdered. Even then she’d only been subbing for someone else.”

It emerges then, that Dix is a deeply disturbed human being.  He is filled with anger, and feels alienated from the rich society of LA (although he is staying in a stylish apartment loaned from a friend, whose car, clothes and accounts he has also appropriated) and from the marital happiness he sees between Brub and his wife, although he is dating a beautiful actress, Laurel Gray:

“To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget. They made happiness a pink marshmallow.”

In a Lonely Place works well as thriller, it is tightly written and the narrative tension is maintained. However, like Highsmith’s Ripley novels, it also works extremely well as a character study of a complex human being. Dix is not likeable, but at the same time he is damaged and lonely, unable to see a way out of his desperation.

“He was there for a long time. Lost in a world of swirling fog and crashing wave, a world empty of all but these things and his grief and the keening of the fog horn at sea. Lost in a lonely place. And the red knots tightened in his brain.”

I thought I knew the story as I had studied the 1950 film at university, but in fact the film is very different. It is a wonderful film noir, and because of the significant plot changes, it doesn’t matter which you experience first. I recommend both the book and the film of In a Lonely Place:

Secondly The Plague (La Peste) by Albert Camus, which I read in the English translation by Stuart Gilbert (1948). Set in the Algerian coastal city of Oran, it is one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. The story begins with the rats of the city gruesomely dying in abundance.

“It was as if the earth on which our houses stood were being purged of its secreted humours – thrusting up to the surface the abscesses and pus-clots that had been forming in its entrails. You must picture the consternation of our little town, hitherto so tranquil, and now, out of the blue, shaken to its core”

Yuck,yuck,yuck. Told by a narrator who doesn’t identify himself (there are no women in this tale) until the end, The Plague recounts the experience of Dr Rieux who works treating the victims; Grand, who works on his novel but never gets beyond constantly re-writing the first line; Cottard, who is suicidal before the plague but reinvigorated by the outbreak; Rambert who was only visiting Oran for work but now finds himself trapped, and a handful of other citizens. The Plague is told in a deceptively simple style, and captures the oppressive atmosphere of a town trapped in quarantine, where you might die at any moment:

“Thus, in a middle course between these heights and depths, they drifted through life rather than lived, the prey of aimless days and sterile memories, like wandering shadows that could have acquired substance only by consenting to root themselves in the solid earth of their distress.”

Amongst this desperation there is also surprising humour (Camus was associated with absurdism):

“One of the cafes had the brilliant idea of putting up a slogan: ‘The best protection against infection is a bottle of good wine’, which confirmed an already prevalent opinion that alcohol is a safeguard against infectious disease.”

And with regard to the officials of the town:

“That, in fact, was what struck one most – the excellence of their intentions. But as regards plague their competence was practically nil.”

Yet of course this was written by one of the foremost philosophers of the twentieth century, and so there is more to this tale than the plague in Oran. It has been read as an allegory for French resistance to Nazism but it is wider than any one reading.

“What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men rise above themselves. All the same, when you see the misery it brings, you’d need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague.”

While they don’t give in, the reactions to the plague by the characters are various but also oddly subdued – there is very little panic or revolt. The desperation is quiet but Camus shows the tragedy of this as life goes on under the shadow of an indiscriminate threat: “the habit of despair is worse than despair itself”.

The Plague is a remarkable novel, straightforward yet complex, that would lend itself to repeated re-readings, and which is both bleak yet hopeful. Thus when Camus writes:

 “each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth, is free from it”

He is pointing out the common humanity which unites as well as the plague of existence.

I don’t want to end a blog post with the phrase ‘plague of existence’ so instead I’ll end it with the phrase chuckles of stardust.

… and a song written in 1947 (this performance from 1962) which suggests it’s all OK really:

“An artist is someone who should raise questions rather than give answers. I have no message.” (Michael Haneke)

Today is National Poetry Day in the UK and the theme is Messages. I fully endorse this choice, primarily because I didn’t have to think twice about which retro pop video I could shoehorn into this post:

Arguably any poem is a message, but I’m lazy don’t believe in shying away from the obvious so I’ve chosen two poems that are titled as messages. Nothing kills a poem like analysing it to death, hence not one of my typically waffling posts this week 🙂

Firstly, back to the 8th century and prolific poet Wang Wei (I’m not sure who translated the poem, but I took the version from here). I chose it because it also references autumn, which is apt right now for those of us in the northern hemisphere.

Message to P’ai Ti

Cold and blue now are the mountains
From autumn-rain that beat all day.
By my thatch door, leaning on my staff,
I listen to cicadas in the evening wind.
Sunset lingers at the ferry,
Cooking-smoke floats up from the houses…
Oh, when shall I pledge Cheih-yu [the great hermit] again
And sing a wild poem at Five Willows?

I love the simplicity of the poem, and how evocative it is of a slightly melancholic moment taken to reflect at the end of the day.

Secondly I chose Message by Dorothy Richardson, because it echoes Wang Wei as it also picks up on autumn, and ends with a question, this time to a silent interlocutor rather than the self. I also chose it because I’m really enjoying reading about Jane and Sarah’s experiences reading her Pilgrimage series, but I haven’t yet got round to these novels…

Seeing in flight along the lifting wind,
Like sudden birds peopling an empty sky,
Those last crisped leaves so long you had passed by –
Where dark they hung that had been fire behind
The pasture whose scant blossoms kept in mind
Our summer now grown gold for memory –
Did you remember as you saw them pass,
Flutter and sink, sully the silvered grass,
That each forsaken stem bears, fast asleep,
An eager bud to tell the tale of spring?
Will you forget, hearing darkness weep,
How each hour moves toward their awakening?

I liked how this poem concentrates on one action, a leaf in the air, and yet weaves a wide experience around it, structured in quite a complex way. The iambic pentameter (more or less, Richardson plays with rhythm a bit) echoes Shakespeare’s sonnets, which I just adore. The message of this poem is one I need to remember – I find the dark days of winter hard-going, so I will remind myself how each forsaken stem contains an eager spring bud in those seemingly never-ending grey days of January and February…

To counteract my comparative reticence in this post, some indulgence to finish. A second – yes, second! – 1979 pop video. Happy Thursday 🙂