“Books have to be heavy because the whole world’s inside them.” (Cornelia Funke)

Oh dear, I still haven’t quite got my blogging momentum back. I planned a few posts for German Literature Month 2018, hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life but here we are at the end of the month and this is my first. Somehow I have a feeling improving my blogging is definitely going to feature on my New Year’s resolution list…

It certainly isn’t lack of good reading that is the cause of my blogging dip, as I really loved Zbinden’s Progress by Christoph Simon (2010, trans. Donal McLaughlin 2012), from the ever-reliable publisher AndOtherStories. It also fits with my love of novellas at only 172 pages long, and is one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit, as much to my own surprise, I’ve not been to Switzerland yet.

The premise of the novel is incredibly simple: octogenarian widower Lukas Zbinden is walking down the stairs of the retirement home where he lives, holding onto the arm of a new carer, Kazim. As they make their way down seemingly interminable flights, Lukas recounts his life. Kazim is a silent interlocutor, as you feel many people are with Lukas Zbinden. He was happily married, to a woman who converted him to the joys of walking, although she preferred country walks and her irrepressible husband prefers sociable city walks:

“Emilie always said the one really essential thing was to remain lively, active and interested, and always open to whatever’s going on both in nature and within oneself. We could talk much more about that Kazim, if we went for a walk.”

“Emilie liked trees standing randomly in a landscape; I like trees in rows. I’ve nothing against cow pastures being built on, even to be replaced by hangars and shopping streets providing free entertainment. I yearn for tranquillity but can’t actually bear it.”

Lukas is an entertaining, endearing man although not without his faults. He is still fully engaged with life, enjoying the people he shares the home with, poking his nose into their business, and trying to convert everyone to the joys of ambulation.

“Do you know what it means to go for a walk? Going for a walk is acquiring the world. Celebrating the random. Preventing disaster by being away.”

He’s also aware of his own failings, and the progress of the title is psychological as well as physical. He misses his wife, he knows his relationship with his son isn’t that great, and he’s trying to be a better person.

“Emilie was so full of beautiful things she could share with others. Her whole life was sharing with others, just as I wish that for my own life. Believe me when I say that, it’s why I’m working on becoming inwardly rich. So that every time I’m with someone, I can share something with that person.”

Zbinden’s Progress was just the right book at the right time for me. Things are pretty bleak right now – watching the news is an endurance task. This novella is sweet but not sentimental, life-affirming but realistic. The overall message is that it’s never too late to reach out to people, to enrich your life and theirs with a connection. It’s also about how love, in its many forms, endures. And it’s about finding the right hobby:

“What counts is that you have the right leisure activity. An activity with which you can live when it gets very dark; that gives you support in the face of major challenges; for which there are no requirements in terms of age and ability; that requires no proof of an unimpaired ability to think; an activity during which you can die peacefully.”

Sounds like reading to me (so long as the dark is metaphorical not literal).

Zbinden’s Progress is funny and sad, but more the former than latter. It is about simple joys, and about finding what for you makes a life well lived.

“the end of my path is becoming more and more identifiable. I’ve started taking my leave of people, but they tell me it’s still too early for that.”

If I’ve failed to give you a good sense of this book, perhaps this will help – a pictorial representation by the author, helpfully enclosed with my copy:

Secondly, a book I read mainly for curiosity value, ThreePenny Novel by Bertolt Brecht (1934, trans. Desmond I Versey with verses trans. Christopher Isherwood, 1937). I know Brecht mainly as a playwright, and I’ve seen ThreePenny Opera a few times so I was curious to see what he did with the characters in novel form.

Macheath, ‘Mack the Knife’ is still the main focus, his famous activities of the ThreePenny Opera shrouded in rumour as he has established himself as a businessman, running a series of ‘B Shops’ which sell stolen goods incredibly cheaply.  Brecht was a Marxist and his work is undoubtedly didactic, but he does it with bone-dry humour:

“years obscured by that semi-darkness which makes certain portions of the biographies of our great businessmen so poor in material; ‘giants of industry’ usually seem to rise, suddenly and astonishingly, ‘straight up’ out of the darkness after so-and-so many years of ‘hard and necessitous life’ – but whose life is usually not mentioned.”

Another businessman is Peachum, Polly’s father, who manages a group of professional beggars, ruthlessly and cynically:

 “After a victory one must send out mutilated, dirty, miserable soldiers begging; but after a defeat they must be smart and clean and spruce. That’s the whole art.”

Polly marries Macheath, and Peachum is not happy. He wanted her to marry a man named Coax, who is organising a shipping scam to rip off investors and the Navy.

“His daughter was to blame for everything. Through her boundless sensuality, doubtless inherited from her mother, and as a result of culpable inexperience, Polly had thrown herself into the arms of a more sinister individual. Why she had immediately married her lover was a mystery to him. He suspected something terrible.”

Everything and everyone is terrible in ThreePenny Novel. The corruption is relentless. The coveting and accumulation of money is the only motivator and is pursued without scruple, facilitated by the bankers and financiers. It is incredibly bleak: sociopathic Macheath rises to the top through entirely legal means.

In this world there is no room for morals, compassion, or consideration. I didn’t find it depressing though. ThreePenny Novel is a satire, and so it’s wry portrayal of people and events lightens it enough. I thought it was a bit overlong (as I nearly always do for anything over 200 pages) but on finishing the novel I did find myself questioning what I could do to be less of a cog in corrupt capitalist machines so it was certainly effective from the political point of view, comrades 😊

Brecht’s work may seem dated: a Marxist treatise set in late Victorian London. But I really don’t think it is. Judge for yourself if this still seems relevant:

“There are some people who have the capacity for remaining entirely uninfluenced by the feelings of others, who can remain completely immune from actualities and can speak their thoughts openly and freely, without regard for time and place. Such men are born to be leaders.”

To end, there was only one song I could possibly end on. Here it is in the 1989 version of The ThreePenny Opera (trigger warnings for mentions of rape, murder, blood, assault, and stylised violence):

31 thoughts on ““Books have to be heavy because the whole world’s inside them.” (Cornelia Funke)

    • It’s lovely isn’t it? I’m sorry you had a tough time with your father in law, I’ve been there too with elderly relatives. I’m sure the secret to ageing well is to stay engaged in life and interested in others. My elderly neighbour was housebound towards the end of her life but her interest didn’t diminish and she aged well. I’m definitely planning on being like Zbinden!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Like you, I read far more than I review, which is sad because I like to go back to my reviews, especially when the books already gone from my memory.
    I’ve read the Brecht ages ago and think I liked it back then.
    I’m not familiar with Zbinden’s progress but it sounds good. Uplifting but not too sweet. Ideal.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I often wish I reviewed all I read, because it would act as a sort of reading diary, but it’s never going to happen – I’m just not organised enough!

      Zbinden’s Progress is very uplifting but not sickly – it still feels real. I thought it was pitched perfectly 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve read but still not reviewed my second book for German Literature Month (and was planning to read so much more), so I have every sympathy with your plight…
    As you might know, I love the DreigroschenOper, although I like the play more than the novel. I thought it was extremely relevant for post-Communist Eastern Europe, as wild Capitalism and Self-interest started rampaging through our countries (arm in arm with Corruption and Co). But now I think it might be a tad close to Brexitish tendencies too…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Marina Sofia – that makes me feel better! I hope you get your review posted soon.

      I’ve only seen/read the Brecht in translation but I agree it works better as a play than in the novel. That’s really interesting about post-Communist countries, how relevant it was throughout all that change, despite being written in the 1930s. I think it remains painfully relevant & certainly saw some Brexit parallels 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As someone whose been blogging for a year, I’m just beginning to feel that I might be getting the hang of it, so it’s encouraging to hear you say that you’ve been lacking momentum – It can be quite disheartening when everyone seems to be blogging away effortlessly! And I love the sound of Zbinden’s Progress and AndOtherStories and the around the world challenge – so lots of thanks!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • After 6 years I’m still astonished at how prolific other bloggers are! I’ll never reach their dizzy heights but I’ve failed to meet even my own low standards in recent months 😀 Hopefully my slump is coming to an end. I hope you’ve enjoyed your first year in the blogosphere!

      Zbinden’s Progress, AndOtherStories and the AW80Books Challenge are all wonderful. You could always join in with AW80Books…hint, hint…. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is easy to relate to, how quickly a month’s event can slip past, while you’re still planning and plotting the ways in which you will/might/want to participate! That happens to me a lot! In fact, I’m just halfway through my read for German Literature Month, which I began on the first of November but only made it a few pages in, so now I am reading in earnest in the last week, hoping just to finish! *shakes head* Well, it’s not our fault if there are so many interesting things to think about and read. Good luck with recapturing the rest of your momentum!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you – it’s good to know I’m not alone! I’ve been late this year with many readathons, luckily the organisers were very accommodating! I hope you enjoy your GLM read and finish in time 🙂

      You’re right – there’s far too much of interest which keeps distracting me. So many books, so little time….


  5. I’ve lost blogging momentum as well – not through lack of desire, more through lack of time (a situation that won’t improve during December!). On a happier front, 37 days until you can go crazy and buy #ALLTHEBOOKS – do you have a shopping list prepared? (just quietly, when I came off my book buying ban, I didn’t rush out to buy up because I think I was out of the habit).

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I’ve had a blip before it’s been because I’m too busy, I’m not sure what’s happened this time! I think you’re right not to have big blogging plans for December 😀

      I do have a list of books, mainly things wonderful bloggers such as yourself have recommended! But like you, I’m not sure I’ll run out accumulating more books. It’s definitely made me aware of my book spending and although the ban has put a dent in the TBR it’s not nearly a big enough dent! So at the moment the plan is for a few bookish treats but still some restraint – I’m not sure this plan will work….


  6. The first one sounds lovely. I love the line “I yearn for tranquillity but can’t actually bear it.” – that’s kind of how I feel about socialising… 😉

    Haha – Dickens turned me into a Social Justice Warrior at the weekend so I’ll meet you on the barricades, tovarich! Up the revolution!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: GLM VIII: Author Index – Lizzy's Literary Life

  8. I might be up to my ears in unread books but that Brecht is calling out to me and it looks short so it’d be rude not to at least put it on my wish list. I’ve not heard that version of ‘Mack the Knife’ before, but it’ll be my go-to pick when I next play violent crime themed musical bingo!

    Liked by 1 person

    • As you know, I think most books could do with being shorter! The Brecht could probably have stood to lose around 50 pages, but it’s still a really interesting read, it’s about an average length. I hope you enjoy it Sarah 🙂

      I hadn’t heard that version of Mack the Knife either until I started looking for this post. It’s certainly got all the bases covered for violent crimes!

      Liked by 1 person

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