“Isn’t it confoundedly easy to think you’re a great man if you aren’t burdened with the slightest idea that Rembrandt, Beethoven, Dante or Napoleon ever lived?” (Stefan Zweig, Chess Story)

Yet again I’m posting late for a readathon. I hope Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life I will allow for my tardiness with this late entry for German Literature Month 2018.  I really need to get a grip on my blogging!

I had a couple of DNFs in my reading for GLM 2018, which really isn’t like me. One novel I suspect will never be for me, the other I think just the timing was wrong. Either way, it was with some relief that I turned to the safest of hands, Stefan Zweig, to finish my GLM reading on a high.

Image from here

In Fantastic Night and Other Stories (1906-1929 trans. Anthea Bell 2004) the wonderful Pushkin Press have collected together five of Zweig’s short stories which are compulsively readable. I don’t want to say too much as Zweig is such a subtle writer that the joy, I think, is going into his writing without an idea of plot or subject, to just see how he unfurls a story of such beauty and psychological insight before you. So I’ll just give a flavour of the first two, the longest in the collection.

In the titular story, a series of events in one evening sees a nihilistic playboy learn the value of living beyond one’s own pleasures:

“Those yearnings that then stirred unconsciously in me at many moments of half-realisation were not really wishes, but only the wish for wishes, a craving for desires that would be stronger, wilder, more ambitious, less easily satisfied, a wish to live more and perhaps suffer more as well.”

Such is the skill of Zweig’s writing that this spoilt and vacuous man undergoes a transformative experience without it seeming rushed or contrived.

“Life is a great and mighty phenomenon and can never be hailed with too much delight. It is something only love grasps, only devotion comprehends.”

Letter From an Unknown Woman I knew from the Max Ophuls 1948 film, starring the luminous Joan Fontaine (some kind soul has uploaded the whole thing to YouTube here); I had no idea it was based on a Zweig short story.

The premise is as simple as the title suggests: a man receives a letter from a woman he has no memory of, proclaiming her enduring love for him. Her young son has died from influenza and she is writing a letter to him to be sent after she has also succumbed to the virus.

Once again, Zweig manages a feat of characterisation. A woman spends her life devoted to a man who does not know of her existence: how is she not a doormat, the tale ridiculous and sentimental? Primarily because the woman is determined and unapologetic. She has a strength that comes through so clearly and is undeniable.

“I know that what I am writing here is a record of grotesque absurdities, of a girl’s extravagant fantasies. I ought to be ashamed of them, but I am not ashamed, for never was my love purer and more passionate than at this time. I could spend hours, days, in telling you how I lived with you though you hardly knew me by sight.”

She never makes excuses, for her life spent in this unrequited state or for her work as a prostitute, which she views as reasonable and profitable for her. She also does not make excuses for the object of her affection, who she sees clear-sightedly:

“You did not recognise me, either then or later. How can I describe my disappointment? This was the first of such disappointments: the first time I had to endure what has always been my fate; that you have never recognised me. I must die, unrecognised […] I understand now, (you have taught me!) that a girl’s or woman’s face must be for man something extraordinarily mutable. It is usually nothing more than the reflection of moods which pass as swiftly as an image vanishes from a mirror.”

She is also never bitter. There is no regret or rancour in her words. She chose her love, and lived it as fulfilled as it could be, given the man it was for:

“You care only for what comes and goes easily, for that which is light of touch, is imponderable. You dread being involved in anyone else’s destiny. You like to give yourself freely to the world – but not to make any sacrifices.”

These words are not angry, but just stating fact. Zweig demonstrates why she loves him, what makes him compelling to her, and why these same traits mean he can never love her back.

Zweig’s short stories are masterful. How he manages to get so much telling detail, such beauty and such insight into such economical writing is truly astonishing.

Secondly, Beware of Pity (1939) which was Zweig’s longest work, telling the story of the soldier Anton Hofmiller, who asks a young girl to dance at a party in the second decade of the twentieth century, unaware that she has a spinal cord injury which means she walks with braces and crutches.

“I had never been deeply moved by anything…Now, all of a sudden, something had happened to change me – nothing outwardly visible, nothing of any apparent importance. But that one angry look, when I had seen hitherto unsuspected depths of human suffering in a lame girl’s eyes, had split something apart in me, and now a sudden warmth was streaming through me, causing mysterious fever that seemed to me inexplicable…All I understood of it at first was that I had broken out of the charmed circle within which I had lived at my ease until now, and I was on new ground which, like everything new, was both exciting and disturbing.”

Out of pity, he repeatedly visits Edith Kekesfalva and is drawn into her life, and that of her father, a rich man driven to distraction over the fate served to his daughter:

“His obstinacy, his egocentric obsession, as if nothing in this world, which is full to the brim of unhappiness anyway, exists but his own and his child’s misfortune”

Hofmiller is callow; he doesn’t know what to do with the situation he finds himself in. The family doctor, Dr Condor, tries to warn him:

“pity is a double-edged weapon. If you don’t know how to handle it you had better not touch it, and above all you must steel your heart against it.”

But Hofmiller blunders onwards into more than one “compassionate lie” which will see all their lives unravel. How he behaves is completely believable, completely understandable, and completely devastating. For the modern reader who may not make such ableist assumptions as Hofmiller, certain situations that he crashes into seem to a certain extent avoidable, but he is naïve and well-meaning and completely oblivious.

Beware of Pity is a devastating read. The title warns of impending tragedy, but Zweig takes it a step further, by framing the story as a man looking back over what happened to a time before World War I, when World War II is just about to start. He shows how such notions of pity, honour and tragedy become swallowed whole under the terror and mass devastation of mechanised warfare. Ultimately though, Zweig suggests the need to keep hold of our humanity in such circumstances, however painful it may be.

“There are two kinds of pity. One, the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart’s impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another’s unhappiness, that pity which is not compassion, but only an instinctive desire to fortify one’s own soul against the sufferings of another; and the other, the only one at counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond.” 

To end, an Anglophone artist who was hugely influenced by German culture, singing one of his most famous songs in German:

“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):

“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:

“A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” (Thomas Mann)

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.

A picture of sloths in a pathetic and failed attempt to make my laziness more endearing

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):