Novella a Day in May 2019 #16

A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler (2014, trans. Charlotte Collins 2015) 149 pages

After the traumas of The Blind Owl yesterday, lets all recuperate in a beautiful Austrian village😊 But that’s not to say that A Whole Life is a comfort read; it’s exactly what the title says – the tale of one man’s whole life, containing tragedy and joy.

Andreas Egger arrives in the village as a young orphan, at the start of the twentieth century. His uncle doesn’t really want him and he is bullied violently by him until he gets old enough to demand it stop, but not before his leg has been broken and badly reset, leaving him with a lifelong limp.

Nonetheless he is a strong and valued manual labourer in the village, later working for the cable car company, shinning up and down the mountains. Egger is a loner but not lonely; ultimately he is a man of the valley, mountains and meadow of his village.

“Sometimes on mild summer nights, he would spread a blanket somewhere on a freshly mown meadow, lie on his back and look up at the starry sky. Then he would think about his future, which extended infinitely before him, precisely because he expected nothing of it. And sometimes, if he lay there long enough, he had the impression that beneath his back the earth was softly rising and falling, and in moments like these he knew that the mountains breathed.”

From this small village Egger witnesses the many and rapid changes of the twentieth century. He participates in some – his only protracted period of time away is when he is a prisoner of war – but mostly he just observes. There are the major upheavals:

“The mayor was no longer a Nazi these days, geraniums hung outside the windows again instead of swastikas”

And also the social shifts, such as the quiet village becoming beset by tourists:

 “He had already been so long in the world: he had seen it change and seem to spin faster with every passing year, and he felt like a remnant from some long buried time, a thorny weed still stretching up, for as long as it possibly could, towards the sun.”

Egger also experiences some major changes in his personal life, but to avoid spoilers I won’t give details. I’ve seen A Whole Life compared to Stoner and while I do love Stoner I think this is quite different. Although both are about male, twentieth-century, somewhat isolated lives, I didn’t find this nearly so sad.

“Drops of water trembled on the tips of the blades, making the whole meadow glitter as if studded with glass beads. Egger marvelled at these tiny, trembling drops that clung tenaciously to the blades of grass, only to fall at last and seep into the earth or dissolve to nothing in the air.”

A beautifully written novella which demonstrates how a life can look quiet and small from the outside but be entirely rich and fulfilling. Above all, it’s about walking your own path.

“And in the mornings after the first snowmelt, when he walked across the dew-soaked meadow outside his hut and lay down onto one of the flat rocks scattered there, the cool stone at his back and the first warm rays of sun on his face, he felt that many things had not gone badly after all.”

Novella a Day in May #11

Journey into the Past – Stefan Zweig (1976 German publication; trans. Anthea Bell, 2009) 84 pages

Although I’ve since read and blogged about The Post Office Girl, this was the first Stefan Zweig I’d read and at first I wondered why everyone rated him so highly as a writer. Then I realised what he was doing in Journey into the Past was immensely clever.

It tells the story of a love affair between a student, Ludwig, and the wife of his employer, who is not named. The story begins with them on a train in the 1920s, and with Ludwig’s thoughts travelling back into the past to remember how they first met before the First World War separated them.

At first, I thought the description of the affair overblown and naïve.

“From that first meeting he had loved this woman, but passionately as his feeling surged over him, following him even into his dreams, the crucial factor that would shake him to the core was still lacking – his conscious realisation that what, denying his true feelings, he still called admiration, respect and devotion was in fact love  – a burning, unbounded, absolute and passionate love.”

At this point I was thinking Zweig perhaps wasn’t for me 😉

But as the story developed – they admit their love but it remains unconsummated, he goes abroad and then war breaks out, separating them for longer than they ever anticipated – it dawned on me that this style choice was entirely deliberate and conscious.  What Zweig shows us is a world before modern technological warfare, a world that was brutally torn apart. These naïve young lovers are part of a society, a life, that was utterly destroyed.

So although we know they are reunited, it is not with the same youthful self-obsession or indulgent love that they had previously.

“‘Everything is just as it used to be, don’t you think?’ she began, determined to say something innocent and casual, although her voice was husky and shook a little.  However he did not echo her friendly, conversational tone, but gritted his teeth.

‘Oh yes, everything.’ Sudden inner rage forced the words abruptly and bitterly out of his mouth. ‘Everything is as it used to be except for us, except for us!’”

Journey into the Past is not a depressing book despite portraying losses that are glimpsed and barely articulated. It is about the impact of international conflict on the lives of individuals in the smallest, most profound ways. Zweig questions whether those loses can be overcome, and I still don’t know what I think.

I feel foolish for my initial impression of this novella: I hadn’t realised I was in the hands of a master.

“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: