“Love does not dominate, it cultivates. And that is more.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

I’m managing to squeeze in one final post for German Literature month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.  Hopefully next year I’ll be better organised and able to participate some more, but for now I’m off to Austria, which is also another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Do join in with GLM next year or AW80Books, they’re great ways to read some wonderful books 😊

Firstly, The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig (trans. Joel Rotenberg 2008) which was found amongst his papers after he killed himself in 1942. This is a melancholy tale of the impact of war on individuals, in this instance the First World War. Christine is a titular provincial civil servant, who finds herself in her late twenties having only known penny-pinching and drudgery.

“The war stole her decade of youth. She has no courage, no strength left even for happiness.”

Christine is plucked out of her ordinary life by her aunt who is visiting the Swiss Alps. She invites Christine to stay and the naïve woman is enraptured by the whirlwind of new clothes, fine dining and bright young things of which she is suddenly in the midst.

 “All the world’s sweetness might be in this one thin straw of scalding ice. Heart thumping, fingers trembling avidly, she looks about for someone or something to receive her overflowing gratitude.”

Christine is transformed from a drudge into a beautiful young woman that people want to be with.

“In this instant, shaken to her very depths, this ecstatic human being has a first inkling that the soul is made of stuff so mysteriously elastic that a single event can make it big enough to contain the infinite.”

Then, just as suddenly, it is all taken away. Back in her small Austrian town she finds herself unable to cope with the poverty of the people, her home and her job. She meets Ferdinand, a soldier whose war wound means he is unable to continue his work as an architect. He is cynical of governments and bitter regarding his experience:

“In our Tartar village we didn’t know if Vienna was part of Bohemia, or maybe Italy. And we didn’t give a damn. All we cared about was stuffing a crust of bread down our throats and getting the lice out of our hair and finding some matches or tobacco sometime in the next five hours.”

For Christine, this man is soulmate, but these two souls are so damaged, so hurt and isolated, that they can only offer one another the bleakest kind of companionship.

“Christine was taken aback. The man beside her had said just what she’d been thinking all this time; he’d expressed clearly what she’d dully felt – the wish to be given one’s due, not to take anything from anyone, but to have some kind of life, not to be left out in the cold forever while others were warm inside.”

Zweig is unblinking in his portrayals of people, showing them with all their flaws, vanities and foibles, but still with great compassion. You feel for the characters precisely because they are so believably imperfect. The tyranny they face from the ruling class – either elected or via money – is presented as inescapable. The Post Office Girl is a novel about desperation, and how financial poverty can wear people down to a poverty of spirit. It is beautifully written and absolutely devastating.

In the Afterword of my edition William Deresiewicz suggests the novel is unfinished. I’m not sure I agree. I don’t know enough about Zweig’s style to argue my point forcefully, but to me, the ending occurs exactly where it should. It is perfect: sad but defiant, with so much unknown.

Secondly, The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek (1983, trans. Joachim Neugroschel 1988). Marina Sofia reviewed Jelinek’s volume of 3 plays In den Alpen for German Lit Month, do read her fascinating post which explains how controversial the author is in Austria due to her critique of Austrian society.  The Piano Teacher was the first of her novels to be translated into English and it was also adapted into a film in 2001, starring the wonderful Isabel Huppert and directed by Michael Haneke. I haven’t seen it but it looks a faithful adaptation:

I found The Piano Teacher an incredibly tough read. Jelinek does not pull her punches in any way. This tale of Erika, a woman living in a claustrophobic, abusive relationship with her mother, and her masochistic sexual desires seeking expression with one of her pupils is really hard going.

“They are enclosed together in a bell jar: Erika, her fine protective hulls, her mama.”

Jelinek creates the cruel, affectionate relationship between mother and daughter brilliantly. They are bound together in bitterness and a warped love.

“The daughter is the mother’s idol, and Mother demands only a tiny tribute: Erika’s life.”

Erika’s relationship with her mother and the abuse she suffers, and enacts, feeds into her sexual preferences, reminding me of The Blue Room. She is repressed (she shares a bed with her mother), and this expresses itself through the violence she metes out to her unsuspecting fellow commuters, and in one horrible instance, a pupil she is jealous of. She is a voyeur and attends peepshows and stalks couples in the park, but is incapable of becoming sexually aroused by what she witnesses. When a student, Klemmer, expresses an interest in her, the two begin a clumsy, stunted affair. It is no great love story:

“Klemmer is still concerned about that damned aged difference. However, he is a man, and that easily makes up for the ten years Erika has over him. Furthermore, female value decreases with increasing years and increasing intelligence. The technician in Klemmer computes all this data, and the bottom line of calculations reveals that Erika still has a wee bit of time before wandering into the tomb.”

The Piano Teacher is brutal. Jelinek’s imagery is disturbing, particularly around the sexual or body parts [the next quote is an example of this, don’t read if you think it will upset you, but I wanted to give a clear idea of a recurring theme in the novel]:

“Rot between her legs, an unfeeling soft mass. Decay, putrescent lumps of organic material. No spring breezes awaken anything. It is a dull pile of petty wishes and mediocre desires, afraid of coming true. Her two chosen mates will encompass her by crab claws: Mother and Klemmer.”

I was relieved to get to the end of The Piano Teacher, I don’t think I could have taken much more. Jelinek is a brilliant writer: her pacing and plotting are perfect and she has powerful things to say about the psychological warfare we wage on ourselves and others. But now I have to go and find a nice Golden Age crime novel with which to recover….

Regular readers will know that I do like to end on an 80s pop video and will shoehorn them into a post wherever possible. I’m delighted that my trip to Austria means I can end on this:

24 thoughts on ““Love does not dominate, it cultivates. And that is more.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

  1. Love the sound of The Post Office Girl, which is just as well as I have a copy of it somewhere, possibly on my kindle. I’m glad to see that you feel it finishes at a natural end point. One for next year’s German Lit Month, perhaps?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Loved The Post Office Girl. I didn’t know much (anything) about Zweig when I read it, and once I’d finished I did some research and when I found out about how he died, I was thinking OMG (in relation to Post Office Girl). So I agree, the novel ends exactly as intended, I reckon.

    That quote from The Piano Teacher about ‘mother’s idol’ – chilling. I need to read this one.

    And thanks for the Falco earworm…

    Liked by 1 person

    • The story of how his life ended is so awful, and you can’t help but read his literature with that in mind. I’ve only read 2 Zweig, this and Journey to the Past, and they’re both about the psychological impact of war. I think it was something he was acutely aware of, and living with, until he couldn’t anymore. It’s very sad.

      I’m glad you think the novel ended at the right place too. It didn’t feel unfinished to me and it didn’t even occur to me that it might have been unfinished until I read the Afterword.

      The Piano Teacher is so chilling. I’d be really interested to hear what you think when you get to it.

      Falco is *such* an earworm, I do apologise 😀

      Like

  3. I think you’re better organised than I am and I’m the host. I was ill all month, so maybe that counts as an excuse. 🙂
    I read the Jelinek. It was so so tough. But excellent. I’ve still not read The Post Office Girl although I had it on my piles for ages. Zweig is always very emotional and sensitive. It sounds excelletn, even though it’s sad.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You poor thing! I hope you’re fully recovered. Of course it counts as an excuse 😉

      I do think Jelinek is a brilliant writer, I’ll go in more prepared next time I pick her up! The Post Office Girl is excellent, I really hope you enjoy it when you get to it. It is sad but so beautifully written.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a post! Falco is completely bonkers isn’t he? He reminds me of a young Rupert Everett. Do you think that’s the maddest 80s video you’ve posted? I couldn’t cope with either of these I don’t think until my serotonin levels were Everest high anyway and that’ll probably be in May (if I’m lucky)!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I felt so sorry for them! Zweig is brilliant at engaging sympathy without being mawkish or sentimental.

      I completely understand about Jelinek. She’s a brilliant writer but reading the novel did feel a bit like being punched repeatedly in the face :-/

      Like

  5. I haven’t heard that song in a long time! I can always count on you to bring up old memories. 🙂

    I’ve heard many times how good Zweig’s books are – hopefully I’ll get to one sometime. But thanks for the warning about Jelinek. I just watched the movie trailer, and if they are at all similar, I don’t think I’ll be reading or watching them any time soon!

    Liked by 1 person

    • They are similar, I think the film made minimal changes from what I’ve heard. So steer clear of the book if the film doesn’t appeal!

      I’ve only read 2 of Zweig but I’m a fan, he’s an incredibly subtle, affecting writer. I hope you enjoy him if you get to him.

      I hope the old memories were good ones! I hadn’t heard the song for ages before I looked it up for this post, but it’s firmly entrenched as an earworm at present 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Stating the obvious, but both those books sound super, super German. Uber German! I am both horrified and intrigued by the Piano Teacher, and I am utterly delighted by Falco. I have that song on a playlist that I always put on when doing a big clean or decorating. Although, he’s another sad death, was just 41 when he died. He has an amazing grave stone that if I ever go to Austria, I’m checking out!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Piano Teacher is consistently horrifying, but it’s a brilliantly written novel.

      I’m decorating this week – it’s tedious and frustrating, so I will play Falco some more! I’ve just googled his gravestone – what a monument! I’m definitely paying a visit when I’m in Austria for real and not just through the medium of books 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: German Literature Month VII: Author Index | Lizzy's Literary Life

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