20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Elizabeth Von Arnim, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Elizabeth and Her German Garden’ by Elizabeth von Arnim

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 132 pages; 2013.

Elizabeth von Arnim, the Australian-born British writer, is probably best known for her delightful novel The Enchanted April, first published in 1922, which is about a disparate group of women who holiday together in an Italian villa. (I have a small review of it here.)

Elizabeth and her German Garden was her debut novel. It was published in 1898 and charts a year in the life of the first person narrator’s plans to create a garden on her husband’s family estate in Pomerania.

The garden is the place I go to for refuge and shelter, not the house. In the house are duties and annoyances, servants to exhort and admonish, furniture, and meals; but out there blessings crowd round me at every step—it is there that I am sorry for the unkindness in me, for those selfish thoughts that are so much worse than they feel; it is there that all my sins and silliness are forgiven, there that I feel protected and at home, and every flower and weed is a friend and every tree a lover.

It is said to be semi-autobiographical, for the author was from the upper classes, having married a Prussian aristocrat, and the story is dotted with references to high society types and the German bourgeois elite.

Written in diary format (although the entries are often months apart), employing a gently mocking tone throughout — her husband, for instance, is only known as “the Man of Wrath” — it is a delightful excursion to another world, where what women could (or could not) do was strictly controlled by societal norms.

Gardening is expensive, I find, when it has to be paid for out of one’s own private pin-money. The Man of Wrath does not in the least want roses, or flowering shrubs, or plantations, or new paths, and therefore, he asks, why should he pay for them? So he does not and I do, and I have to make up for it by not indulging all too riotously in new clothes, which is no doubt very chastening.

A garden of her own

Much of the book describes how Elizabeth defies the conventions of the day. She wants not just a room of her own, but an entire garden — and she wants to create it by herself. Unfortunately, she cannot get her own hands dirty (that would be taking things a little too far) and has to rely on a male gardener to carry out her plans.

The gardeners in her employ, whom she describes in quite a judgemental way, are not without their own character flaws — one walks around with a revolver, for instance, and has to be sent to “an asylum as expeditiously as possible” when he answers her back — and there’s an air of sad resignation in the way she writes about the frustration of not being able to do the work herself.

I wish with all my heart I were a man, for of course the first thing I should do would be to buy a spade and go and garden, and then I should have the delight of doing everything for my flowers with my own hands and need not waste time explaining what I want done to somebody else. It is dull work giving orders and trying to describe the bright visions of one’s brain to a person who has no visions and no brain, and who thinks a yellow bed should be calceolarias edged with blue.

Much of the book has forays into what I would describe as “early feminism”, with Elizabeth bemoaning her inability to be allowed to live her life as she truly desires, free and unencumbered by male constructs. But complaints about her own situation pale by comparison with the servants (or “lower classes”), mainly from Russia, who work on her estate.

Her husband believes the women are kept in line by their brutal husbands — accepting their “beatings with a simplicity worthy of all praise, and far from considering themselves insulted, admire the strength and energy of the man who can administer such eloquent rebukes” — but Elizabeth is less sure.

I have not yet persuaded myself, however, that the women are happy. They have to work as hard as the men and get less for it; they have to produce offspring, quite regardless of times and seasons and the general fitness of things; they have to do this as expeditiously as possible, so that they may not unduly interrupt the work in hand; nobody helps them, notices them, or cares about them, least of all the husband. It is quite a usual thing to see them working in the fields in the morning, and working again in the afternoon, having in the interval produced a baby.

Gorgeous descriptions

But the novel is not all heavy-handed (and anger-inducing) about the inequality between the sexes or the lives of the “lower classes”. Many of Elizabeth’s diary entries are delightful descriptions of her garden and the passing of the seasons.

September 15th.—This is the month of quiet days, crimson creepers, and blackberries; of mellow afternoons in the ripening garden; of tea under the acacias instead of the too shady beeches; of wood-fires in the library in the chilly evenings.

And:

December 22nd.—Up to now we have had a beautiful winter. Clear skies, frost, little wind, and, except for a sharp touch now and then, very few really cold days. My windows are gay with hyacinths and lilies of the valley; and though, as I have said, I don’t admire the smell of hyacinths in the spring when it seems wanting in youth and chastity next to that of other flowers, I am glad enough now to bury my nose in their heavy sweetness.

I love the way she champions rural living at a time when this viewpoint was not popular, and her desire for solitude — to be away from family, friends and acquaintances who sap her energy and leave her no room to be herself — is a constant refrain.

The passion for being for ever with one’s fellows, and the fear of being left for a few hours alone, is to me wholly incomprehensible.

Human relationships

The narrative does lose its way a little when she hosts two visitors for an extended stay, but Elizabeth has just as many insights into human relationships and writes about them with the same eloquence that she does about her garden that it’s not too difficult to forgive her for going off on a tangent. I think I might have even laughed out loud at the following passage:

Oh, my dear, relations are like drugs—useful sometimes, and even pleasant, if taken in small quantities and seldom, but dreadfully pernicious on the whole, and the truly wise avoid them.

This is my 6th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it as a Kindle edition in June 2019, but I have a paperback copy, too, which I have had since circa 2015. On the basis that von Arnim could be claimed as an Australian writer, this is also my 12th book for #AWW2020.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Fiction, Germany, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Twins’ by Dirk Kurbjuweit

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 155 pages; 2017. Translated from the German by Imogen Taylor.

Literature has long been fascinated by twins, but this German novella, first published in 2001 and translated into English in 2017, gives the topic an unusual twist.

In this fable-like tale, “twins” Johann and Ludwig are not related, they are simply childhood friends who forge a strong bond in the belief that this will make them more synchronised as rowers and therefore more successful in competition. Their aim is to beat their rivals, the Potsdam twins, in the coxless pairs.

But the rowing contest is not really the focus of this coming of age story. It’s really about friendship and how bonds can be broken just as easily as they can be made. And it’s about what happens when you keep secrets from one another and don’t show your true self.

Schoolboy friendship

Johann and Ludwig first meet at school when they are 11 years old. The story is told from Johann’s perspective as a 16-year-old looking back on past events. He’s a shy, introverted boy. He’s astonished when Ludwig strikes up a friendship by inviting him to stay over on the first day they meet.

Ludwig lives in a house near a notoriously dangerous overhead traffic bridge from which people jump when they wish to commit suicide. These people often land in Ludwig’s garden and he’s intrigued by their lifeless bodies, often sitting with them until the authorities arrive.

The bridge looms large in this fast-paced story. Ludwig, the more bullish and extroverted of the pair, often challenges Johann to run across the bridge, dodging the traffic, or to climb the fence from which the suicides jump. This teaches Johann to confront his fears, to try new things, to win the approval of his new friend.

Over time the pair become closer and closer, adopting each other’s looks and mannerisms.

From then on I went home only to sleep, and sometimes not even that. We spent almost every waking moment together, watching TV, playing the same computer games, reading the same books, eating the same size servings of the same meals, and sharing all our thoughts.

In their teens, they even share the same “girlfriend” (Josefine, who they sleep with) and work on the same project: to repair an old motorbike which they can then ride together, albeit unlicensed.

But for all their closeness, their shared time together in class, at home and in the rowing contests, there are some things that cannot be shared and which will eventually tear them apart.

SPOILER ALERT

The chief secret is Johann’s growing friendship with Ludwig’s older sister, Vera. The pair conduct a clandestine sexual relationship, meeting up at night in the motorbike workshop under the bridge for romantic rendezvous. It is this liaison that eventually tests the real bond between the two teenage “twins”.

END OF SPOILER ALERT

I quite liked this story, which is written in stripped-back prose and drips with melancholia. It reminded me a lot of Norwegian writer Per Petterson’s work (all reviewed here) in both style — that subtle prose and the aching atmosphere it evokes — and substance. But there is a thriller-like edge to it which gives Twins a compelling, page-turning quality. In its exploration of moral codes, male friendship, violence, sex and suicide, it’s a lot heftier than its slim page count might suggest.

There is an unexpected twist at the end, which makes the reader reassess the entire story and leaves a memorable impression — not bad for a book that can easily be read in a couple of hours.

 

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sabahattin Ali, Setting, TBR2020, Turkey

‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’ by Sabahattin Ali

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin Modern Classics; 176 pages; 2017. Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe.

If you have ever stopped and stared at a painting and been slightly bewitched by the subject, Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat will resonate.

This haunting Turkish novella drips with melancholia and heartache. First published in 1943, it tells the tragic story of a young man from Ankara who travels to Berlin in the 1920s where he falls in love with the portrait of a woman he sees in an art gallery.

Suddenly, near the door to the main room, I stopped. Even now, after all these years, I cannot describe the torrent that swept through me in that moment. I only remember standing, transfixed, before a portrait of a woman wearing a fur coat. Others pushed past me, impatient to see the rest of the exhibition, but I could not move. What was it about that portrait? I know that words alone will not suffice. All I can say is that she wore a strange, formidable, haughty and almost wild expression, one that I had never seen before on a woman. But while that face was utterly new to me, I couldn’t help but feel that I had seen her many times before. Surely I knew this pale face, this dark brown hair, this dark brow, these dark eyes that spoke of eternal anguish and resolve. […] She was a swirling blend of all the women I had ever imagined.

He eventually meets the woman from the painting and the pair strike up an intense friendship. But when he is called back to Turkey, following the death of his father, their romance is cut short. They never see one another again.

A story in two parts

The book has an unusual structure. An unnamed first-person narrator introduces us to a colleague named Raif Efendi, a talented but reclusive translator, whom he befriends. When Raif takes to his bed suffering from an unspecified illness, the narrator visits him at home to discover that his living arrangments are odd and that his family is kept at arm’s length. It is clear that Raif is deeply disturbed by something.

When he collects Raif’s belongings from the office, he discovers a notebook. Raif encourages him to read it. It is this notebook, a reflection on what happened in Berlin 12 years earlier, that forms the rest of the novella. In it, Raif explains his quiet disposition, his incredible shyness and his inability to properly communicate with people, including his immediate family who shun him because they fear he is too feminine.

This lack of typical masculine traits is what brings him close to Maria, the Madonna in the painting, because she recognises that his kindness and quiet, caring nature is far removed from the men she normally meets in the cabaret hall where she dances.

‘Now don’t you dare start thinking like all the other men … I don’t want you reading volumes into everything I say … just know that I am always completely open … like this … like a man … I’m like a man in many other ways, too. Maybe that’s why I’m alone …’ She looked me over, before exclaiming: ‘And you’re a bit like a woman! I can see it now. Maybe that’s why I’ve liked you ever since I first set eyes on you … Yes, indeed. There’s something about you that makes me think of a young girl …’ How surprised I was – and how saddened – to hear a new acquaintance echo my parents’ words!

But Raif’s inability to overcome his low self-esteem and his constant self-flagellation leads to his undoing, for even when he is deeply in love he cannot quite bring himself to fully open up to Maria. He keeps her at an emotional distance, in much the same way that his family keeps him at an emotional distance.

Never in my life had anyone loved me, ever.

Hypnotic, languid prose

I really liked this story with its hypnotic, almost languid prose and its acute psychological insights into one man’s soul.

And while Raif’s passivity annoyed me, there was enough character development to completely understand why a naive 24-year-old man — his first time in the West — might behave in such a way. (Anyone who has ever travelled alone for any length of time will know that there is something about being outside of your comfort zone in a foreign land that can inexplicably lead to a torpor from which you can’t escape. This is especially true if you are an introvert. I recall that Gail Jones writes about this, too, in her novel A Guide to Berlin.)

What is perhaps less understandable is why his siblings, his wife and his children seem to care so little for him, but perhaps that’s because he’s shut them out emotionally. It’s hard to know.

But I digress. As you might have guessed, this is a rather sad tale. It focuses on missed opportunities, thwarted love and the perils of living too much in your own head. If you like reading romantic stories full of tragedy and pathos, then Madonna in a Fur Coat is definitely a must-read. I promise you, it will linger in your thoughts for days, possibly months, afterward.

This is my 3rd book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I purchased this Kindle edition on 9 January 2019 for £3.99. I have no idea why. Perhaps it is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and that’s why I bought it. Unfortunately, I can’t check because my copy is still in London, but if anyone knows maybe you could enlighten me…?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Egypt, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Maclehose Press, Nawal El Saadawi, Olivia Laing, Picador, Publisher, Roland Schimmelpfennig, Saqi Books, Setting, UK, USA

3 novellas by Nawal El Saadawi, Olivia Laing and Roland Schimmelpfennig

I do love a good novella.

Wikipedia defines these books as “somewhere between 17,500 and 40,000 words”, but I generally think anything under 150 pages qualifies. Alternatively, anything I can read in around two hours is a novella to me.

Here are three excellent novellas I’ve read recently, all of which I highly recommend.

‘Memoirs of a Woman Doctor’ by Nawal El Saadawi

Fiction – paperback; Saqi Books; 128 pages; 2019. Translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

First published in Nawal El Saadawi’s native Egypt in 1960, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor is a fictionalised account of growing up female in a restrictive culture where women are second-class citizens and often denied a chance of an education.

In this first-person story, our narrator defies tradition — and her family’s claustrophobic expectations that she’ll marry and produce children — to go to medical school. Here, in the autopsy room, she dissects a male body — her first encounter with a naked man — and “in the course of it men lost their dread power and illusory greatness in my eyes”.

Later, she forgoes her independence to marry a man, but that turns sour when he tries to control her at home. She wastes no time in divorcing him — a huge no-no in Egyptian society — wondering if she will ever find a partner who respects her as a person and not as a “chattel” to own and objectify. The ending, I’m happy to say, is a satisfying one.

This fast-paced novella, which spans decades in less than 120 pages, reveals the sexism at the heart of Egyptian culture and the courage required for a woman to be accepted in a profession long dominated by men. It has proved an excellent introduction to this author’s work, which has just been reissued by Saqi Books as part of a new series of classic work by writers from the Middle East and North Africa.

‘Crudo’ by Olivia Laing

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 176 pages; 2018.

I ate up Olivia Laing’s Crudo in an afternoon. It is an amazing little book about the power of now — or, more specifically, the summer of 2017 — when the main character, Kathy, turns 40 and falls in love but is scared of committing herself to the one man. She goes ahead with the wedding regardless.

It is all stream-of-consciousness, written in a fast-paced, fragmentary style, but riveting and so akin to my own line of thinking about the modern world — Brexit, Trump’s America, politics, social justice and climate change et al —  that it almost feels as if it fell out of my own head.

Supposedly based on the work of Kathy Acker, whom I had to look up on Wikipedia (her entry is a fascinating read in its own right), it took me on a short but jam-packed journey about art and love and life and everything in between. A wow of a book that I hope to read again sometime soon.

‘One Clear Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century’ by Roland Schimmelpfennig

Fiction – paperback; MacLehose Press; 240 pages; 2018. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

This German novella has been reviewed favourably by Annabel at Annabookbel and Susan at A Life in Books, but I think I probably saw it first at Winstonsdad’s Blog.

It’s a highly original story that follows a diverse group of disparate characters living in Poland and Germany who are all united by one thing: they have spied the same rare wild wolf in the snow en-route to Berlin.

Written by a German playwright, the book is intensely cinematic and told in a fragmentary style using sparse prose and small vignettes which provide glimpses into the lives of those who people it, including two young people on the run, a Polish construction worker and his pregnant girlfriend, a small business owner who runs a kiosk with his wife, and a woman intent on burning her mother’s diaries.

It’s an absorbing, if somewhat elusive, read, one that requires a bit of focus to keep track of who’s who as the narrative twists and loops around itself, a bit like the wandering wolf at the heart of the tale. But on the whole, this is a fascinating portrait of modern Berlin and its diverse population after unification.

Have you read any of these books? Do you like novellas? Do you have any favourites you can recommend?

Anja Reich-Osang, Author, Book review, Germany, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text, true crime

‘The Scholl Case: The Deadly End of a Marriage’ by Anja Reich-Osang

The Scholl Case

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 224 pages; 2016. Translated from the German by Imogen Taylor. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

A quiet, slow-moving and devastating examination of a 50-year marriage that ends in murder, Anja Reich-Osang’s The Scholl Case is a true crime book with a difference.

That’s because it doesn’t examine the crime, nor the resultant trial, in too much detail. What it does do is build up a thorough portrait of two wildly different individuals — including their troubled childhoods, their early struggles as a couple and their later success as social climbers —  whose life together wasn’t always as it seemed.

Brigitte Scholl was in her 60s and ran a well-regarded beauty salon in Ludwigsfelde, a small town to the south of Berlin. In late 2011 she disappeared while out walking her beloved dog in the woods near her home. A few days later Brigitte’s husband and adult son found her body in the woods. She had been strangled to death and was lying partially covered by moss in a shallow grave, her dog dead beside her.

Brigitte’s husband, Heinrich — once the most successful mayor in East Germany, a man who had done so much to create a thriving town after the fall of the Berlin Wall — was arrested and charged with her murder. He was later sentenced to life imprisonment.

Story of two people in a strange marriage

The book is based largely on observations made during an eight-month trial and extensive interviews with friends, relations and business colleagues of both Brigitte and Heinrich. The author also interviewed Heinrich after the trial was over and used letters and articles he had written about his life as material for the book.

What emerges is a painstaking portrait of a marriage between two people that might have looked idyllic from the outside but was actually quite troubled behind closed doors.

Heinrich had risen from humble roots (and a cold, unloving household) to become a successful local politician. To his constituents, he gave the impression of a decisive man always in charge, but at home he was hen-pecked and bullied.

Brigitte, who also came from a humble background and had suffered multiple tragedies in her life (including the suicide of her mother and, later, her sister), was regarded as something of a local beauty. She was well liked by the women of the town, many of whom were clients in her salon. But she was known to have a cruel streak.

A Swiss business partner of her husband was asked out of the blue whether he smoked; she’d noticed he had such yellow teeth. A local councillor was warmly advised to get the nape of his neck shaved. Her remarks were poison—small, well-measured injections, with which she could silence an entire table. Most of all, she liked to make a spectacle of her husband. If they had friends round and the men wanted to watch football, she would say that Heiner had to wash the car first. She’d get him to cut the hedge, and if she wasn’t satisfied with the result, she’d have the gardener in to redo it the next day. Customers overheard her ordering him to mow the lawn— ‘and that means now, not this evening.’

But Heinrich was no angel. When he retired he moved out of the family home and took up with a Thai prostitute. Together they lived in an apartment in Berlin, but she bled him dry and took up with someone else behind his back. Later, with his life and reputation in near ruin, Heinrich moved back in with Brigitte, who made him sleep in the basement with all his belongings.

To the outside world their marriage was back on, but it was clearly just a pretense. Brigitte was murdered just a little while later.

Compelling story but drags in places

As much as I love true crime books that use the devices of the novel to tell the story, I have to admit this one gets a bit bogged down in places. It’s a good read — compelling and well written in clear, concise prose — but it does tend towards the soporific. The picture of Heinrich’s life is so detailed that I’m not sure it adds terribly much to the overall story.

What I did find interesting was the trial itself (in Germany, criminal offences are tried by a judge, or panel of judges, not by a jury) and it was fascinating to find out how Heinrich’s behaviour changed in the immediate aftermath of the murder, which suggested he was either covering his tracks or befuddled by grief.

A lot of the evidence was circumstantial and witnesses were often confused or changed their story. Despite Heinrich’s son turning against him, Heinrich has always protested his innocence. Even the author, who takes great pains to keep herself out of the story, lets slip her own doubt at the very end of the book:

Is this an ice-cold murderer and a liar speaking? Or is it a madman? Or a victim of the justice system? Heinrich Scholl makes for a very convincing innocent.

The Scholl Case was shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction in 2017.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, Kerstin Hensel, Peirene Press, Publisher, Setting

‘Dance by the Canal’ by Kerstin Hensel

Dance by the canal

Fiction – paperback; Peirene; 122 pages; 2017. Translated from the German by Jen Calleja.

Kerstin Hensel’s Dance by the Canal gives voice to the voiceless: a homeless woman living under a canal bridge in East Germany.

First published in 1994 under the German language title Tanz am Kanal, it has recently been translated into English by Jen Calleja and published by independent press Peirene as part of its East and West Series.

View from a bridge

The book opens as follows:

Now that I am sitting down here by the left pillar of the bridge with this large, smooth sheet of packing paper at my feet, I feel joy for the first time in years. It’s no coincidence that fate has brought me this paper — I’ve been chosen to write. I’ve been put on this earth for no other purpose than to tell the story of my life, and today I will begin.

What follows is a narrative that swings between two time periods — Gabriela von Haßlau’s childhood under Communism in East Germany in the 1960s and her current life as a homeless woman intently focused on scribbling her autobiography on scraps of paper salvaged from rubbish bins.

From this we learn that Gabriela was the daughter of a vascular surgeon, who rises to become Chief Medical Officer, and a society hostess and that she grew up in Leibnitz, a (fictional) industrial town in East Germany, where her parents were famous for their bourgeois ways and big parties.

Schooled with the children of labourers, textile workers and machinists, Gabriela stands out, not least because the “von” in her name indicates she’s a descendent of noble Anhaltinian stock. Yet, whether by accident or design, Gabriela does not really shine and fails to fulfil her educational potential.

Despite being taught by one of the country’s leading violinists, Gabriela shows a shocking lack of musical talent and it’s only when her teacher puts her “forceful strange tongue, thrusting and churning between my teeth” that her parents agree she can stop the lessons. She’s only five years old.

Disturbing look at life under Communism

Later, when her parents separate, Gabriela lives with her father, who becomes increasingly reliant on alchohol. He sinks into a depression, loses his job and falls out of favour with the Communists. It’s all downhill from there.

Dance by the Canal paints a convincing (and disturbing) portrait of how an oppressive political system can have long-lasting repercussions on individuals, damaging their psyches and leaving them at the mercy of a rigid, often uncaring society.

While Gabriela’s tale is told at an emotional distance in simple, succinct language, there are “muddled” passages which indicate the state of her mind. Her confusion and desire for acceptance as an individual, rather than as a cog in a machine, is heartbreaking.

Intense, sobering and dripping with melancholy, this novella leaves a dark impression on the reader.

Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, Gail Jones, Germany, Harvill Secker, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘A Guide to Berlin’ by Gail Jones

A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 272 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Gail Jones latest novel, A Guide to Berlin, pays homage to Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian writer who inspired the title*, as well as the city of Berlin itself.

The book focuses on a group of six Berlin-based Nabokov fans from around the world — two Italians, a Japanese couple, an American and an Australian — who meet regularly to tell a “densely remembered story or detail” about their lives, what they dub “speak-memory** disclosures”.

The narrative largely revolves around Cass, the 20-something Australian who has decamped from Sydney to Berlin in pursuit of a dream: to write and to be near the family home in which Nabokov once lived. Here she meets Marco, the Italian academic/real estate agent, who organises the Nabokov get-togethers in empty apartments he’s trying to sell. And from there she is introduced to the others in the group: Victor from New York, Gino from Rome, and Yukio and Mitsuki from Tokyo.

Short stories woven together

The book is loosely structured around each character’s speak-memory, giving it the feel of a short story collection. It’s not quite as rigid as Jones’ previous novel, Five Bells, which follows the lives of five different characters in clearly delineated sections, but more fluid in the sense that Cass’s new life exploring Berlin is woven throughout the narrative: her adventures are simply punctuated by the Nabovok meetings she attends.

This helps to provide the story with a real sense of atmosphere. Jones does a lot of work telling us about Berlin’s haunted past and how its streets, shrouded in winter snow, almost echo with the footsteps of people long since dead. Indeed, Berlin feels very much like a character in its own right, and it’s beautifully evoked through the eyes of an antipodean experiencing a Northern Hemisphere winter for the first time:

Before the snows truly began, the city was a desolating ash-grey, and bitterly cold. Cass had never seen such a grey city. It felt stiff and dead. There were the fleshless arms of cranes, slowly swinging, there was the rumble slide of ubiquitous trains and trams, there were busy buses, skidding pedestrians, instructive red and green lights blinking their cartoon man, but still Berlin seemed to her collectively frozen. The white sky was menacing. The plates of ice on the Spree, uneven and jagged, resembled a spray of shattered glass after a wartime bombing.

Stylistically superb

But I have to say I found A Guide to Berlin slightly disappointing. I can’t fault the prose, which is beautiful and elegiac and littered with Nabokov references that I’m sure fans will enjoy spotting. And there’s no doubting that Jones’ is a superb stylist, with every single word carefully selected to do a specific job, but that, on its own, isn’t enough to carry this relatively thin story, which occasionally feels fleshed out merely for the sake of it.

But I think my biggest gripe is this: it’s not a plot-driven novel, and yet, just as the reader begins to wonder how the story is going to end, the author relies on plot-driven devices to bring things to a head. The ending, as the blurb will tell you, is violent and shocking. But it also feels rushed — and far from authentic.

Yet, for all that, the story is an easy one to read, and I very much enjoyed spending time in Cass’s company and seeing Berlin through her eyes. I, too, have been a tourist a long way from home and I know of the torpor and melancholy that can arise when you’re suddenly confronted with horrendously oppressive weather day in day out and no support network to see you through.

This is a seemingly gentle and reflective story — about all kinds of things including truth, friendship, loyalty and travel — which slowly builds to a dramatic conclusion. I rather suspect if you’ve read Rachel Cusk’s Outline and liked it, you will like A Guide to Berlin too.

* A Guide to Berlin is a short story by Vladimir Nabokov, which was first published in 1925.
** Nabokov’s memoir, published in 1951, was called Speak, Memory.

This is my fourth book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my third for #AWW2016.

The author is widely published, so UK and US readers should have no trouble getting hold of this one.

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, historical fiction, Jenny Erpenbeck, literary fiction, Portobello Books, Publisher, Setting

‘The End of Days’ by Jenny Erpenbeck

End-of-days

Fiction – paperback; Portobello Books; 280 pages; 2014. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Every November bloggers Caroline and Lizzy host German Literature Month, which is a good excuse to dig out those German language books languishing in my TBR. This year, however, I decided to treat myself to a new novel, which is how I came to buy Jenny Erpenbeck’s award-winning and critically acclaimed The End of Days at Waterstone’s late last month.

One woman’s life

The novel, which is broken up into five parts, tells the story of one woman’s life from cradle to grave. But it does not follow the normal narrative conventions, for at the end of each part cruel fate steps in and the protagonist dies.

But then the author plays with the idea of “what if?” and the next section of the book explores what might have happened if the (unnamed) woman had continued to live.

All this is played out against the backdrop of Europe’s turbulent 20th century history, including anti-Semitism, the rise of the Third Reich, and Communism.

It’s a neat way to explore how chance and choice and the little decisions we make every day can have a big  impact on our lives, and begs the question, is that what happens with world history, too?

An uneven narrative

Admittedly, reading this book was an uneven experience for me. The first two parts were some of the most compelling — and moving — literary fiction I’ve ever read. Who could not be intrigued by the idea of a baby dying in her cradle, aged just eight months, and then seeing the outfall on her parents — a Gentile father, who flees to America to escape the pain of his loss, and a Jewish mother, who falls apart emotionally and accidentally falls into prostitution to support herself?

The second part, which explores what would happen if the baby had  survived (because the parents had rubbed a handful of snow on her chest to bring her back from the brink of death), follows the now 17-year-old girl being uprooted from her home in Eastern Europe and settling in Vienna, where it is hoped she will lead a better life. But it’s 1919 and food, fuel wood — and hope — is in short supply. There is increasing, yet unspoken, pressure on her to sell herself in order to sustain her family, but instead she enters into a suicide pact with a fellow student.

The third part charts a new variation of the young woman’s life had that pact failed, but this is where my interest in the novel began to wane. I’m not sure if that’s because I’d got used to the “trick” of the story, or whether it was because the prose style suddenly became dry and detached, a mirror perhaps of the period of Communist history in which it was set.

I won’t elaborate on the final two parts of the story, but I found the narrative recaptured my attention once again, and I was left feeling slightly shattered by the time I’d reached the final page.

Power, passion and philosophy

The End of Days is a relatively short novel, but it’s a powerful, passionate and philosophical one. The prose is rich and evocative, and the story so filled with ideas, concepts and political, socio-economic and cultural themes that it would take an age to unpack them all. But, in my opinion, the narrative power, so strong in the first 115 pages, isn’t sustained, weakening the overall effect.

Not that my opinion really matters: this book was described as a “work of genius” when it won the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction prize earlier this year.

For other takes on this novel, please do read the review on Lizzy’s Literary Life and the one on JacquiWine’s Journal

Author, Book review, Fiction, Fred Uhlman, Germany, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘Reunion’ by Fred Uhlman

Reunion

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 98 pages; 2012.  

Fred Uhlman’s classic novella Reunion — first published in 1971 — is a universal story about the friendship between two teenage school boys. But this is no average story, no average friendship, for it is set in Germany in the early 1930s, just as Nazism is on the rise.

Teenage friendship

The story is narrated by middle-class Hans Schwarz, the son of a Jewish doctor and grandson of a rabbi, looking back on a special friendship he shared with the aristocratic Konradin von Hohenfel, whose parents sided with Hitler, some 25 years after they lost contact with one another.

He came into my life in February 1932 and never left it again. […] I can remember the day and the hour when I first set eyes on this boy who was to be the source of my greatest happiness and of my greatest despair.

The book charts the rise and fall of their friendship over the course of a year. Right from the start Hans, who is friendless and lonely at school, is enamoured by Konradin’s arrival in their classroom for the first time:

We stared at him as if we had seen a ghost. What struck me and probably all of us more than anything else, more than his self-assured bearing, his aristocratic air and slight, faintly supercilious smile, was his elegance. We were all, so far as our style of dress was concerned, a dreary lot. […] But with this boy it was different. He wore long trousers, beautifully cut and creased, obviously not off the peg like ours. His suit looked expensive: it was light grey with a herringbone pattern and almost certainly “Guaranteed English”. He wore a pale blue shirt and a dark blue tie with small white polka-dots; in contrast our neckwear was dirty, greasy and rope-like. Even though we regarded any attempt at elegance as “sissy”, we couldn’t help looking enviously at this picture of ease and distinction.

It takes a concerted effort to “woo” Konradin by the shy Hans, but eventually they bond over a shared love of coin collecting. Konradin is welcomed into the Schwarz family home after school on a regular basis, but the favour takes a long time to be returned — and when it is, it doesn’t take Hans long to realise that he is only ever invited over when Konradin’s parents are away.

Tensions in the friendship become heightened — almost in tandem with the rise of anti-Semitism in German society — and things come to a head just as Hitler is about to be appointed Chancellor. I won’t say any more, but the book has a spine-tingling — and quite unexpected — final sentence that gives the story extra resonance and poignancy.

A portrait of an ideal friendship

Reunion is a beautiful depiction of an “ideal friendship” between two 16-year-old boys from different backgrounds. Though we largely experience it from Hans’ point of view, it perfectly captures the all-pervasive need to have that one special person in our lives — with whom we can share our interests, our troubles, our desires — when we are teens. It also highlights how loyalty can be tested, in this case to the extreme, by circumstances beyond our control.

I loved the mood of the book — it’s nostalgic and wistful without being sentimental — and it’s written in a perfectly matter-of-fact way but is done so eloquently the sentences feel as if they’ve been spun from silk. It’s a quick read, too, but it’s the kind of story that stays with you, not least because it shows how friendships can endure beyond the worst of human catastrophe.

My edition includes a short introduction written by French novelist Jean d’Ormesson in 1997, but the novella has also been championed by Arthur Koestler, who described it as a “minor masterpiece”, and Rachel Seiffert. It came to my attention via Armen, a member of my book group, who recommended it to me late last year.

Finally, I should point out that Uhlman wrote Reunion in English, not German. He emigrated to the UK in 1936 after stints in France and Spain. You can read more about his eventful life on his Wikipedia page.

Author, Book review, Claire Fuller, Fiction, Fig Tree, Germany, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Our Endless Numbered Days’ by Claire Fuller

Our-endless-numbered-days

Fiction – hardcover; Fig Tree; 304 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The world has ended. Everyone is dead — except for two people: eight-year-old Peggy and her dad, James, a survivalist, who has been preparing for this exact situation for years.

That’s the scenario that first-time novelist Claire Fuller presents in Our Endless Numbered Days — but there’s a twist: Peggy’s dad, who is a “North London Retreater”, has made up the bit about the world having ended. It’s simply a ruse to prevent Peggy asking questions after he’s whisked her away from their London home to live in die Hütte, a wooden cabin in a remote forest somewhere on the Continent.

But why would her father do that? Why has he kidnapped her and told her that her mother is dead? And how will the pair cope living off the grid?

Nine years in the forest

When the book opens it is 1985, and 17-year-old Peggy has returned to her childhood home in Highgate, London (their home backs onto the famous cemetery), after having spent nine years living with her father in the forest.

Her story is narrated flashback style in a naive, intimate and compelling voice. It begins with that long hot summer of 1976 in which her father taught her hardcore survivalist skills — how to trap, skin and cook squirrels, which mushrooms were safe to pick, and how to light a fire without matches — while her German mother, a celebrated concert pianist, went away on tour.

When I should have been in school, the garden became our home, and the cemetery our garden. Occasionally I thought about my best friend Becky and what she might be doing in class, but not often. We sometimes went into the house to ‘gather provisions’ and on a Wednesday evening to watch Survivors on the telly. We didn’t bother to wash or change our clothes. The only rule we followed was to brush our teeth every morning and evening using water we brought to the camp in a bucket.

These skills become vital when her father takes her “on holiday” and then announces that an apocalyptic event has meant everyone else in the world, including her mother, has died.

Initially, it’s somewhat of an exciting adventure for Peggy as they set up their new home, explore the woods around them and settle into a new routine, all of which is beautifully described in Fuller’s evocative prose.

But it soon becomes clear that her father is obsessive — the silent piano he carefully crafts and then teaches her to play is but one example — and a creeping unease sets in. Existence is fraught, especially in winter when the snow arrives and food is in short supply, and a dark claustrophobia descends on die Hütte.

As the years progress, Peggy’s unquestioning acceptance of her father’s authority and knowledge is called into question, particularly when she believes that there’s another man living in the forest near them. It doesn’t help that James’ seems to be descending into a sort of madness, putting both their lives at risk…

A grown-up fairytale

I won’t be the first reader to compare Our Endless Numbered Days with a grown-up fairytale — think Little Red Riding Hood meets Bluebeard, or perhaps Goldilocks crossed with Hansel and Gretel — but it’s also reminiscent of those dystopian stories I read as a teenager in the 1980s when nuclear war was a very real threat (I’m specifically thinking of Robert C. O’Brien’s Z is for Zachariah) and everyone was intent on making sure they could survive an apocalypse.  It also reminded me of David Vann‘s terrifying wilderness adventures in which parent-child relationships are tested to the limit by psychological threats rather than physical ones.

But that’s not to say this isn’t an original story, because it’s quite unlike any exploration of father-daughter relationships I’ve read. It’s also an interesting analysis of a marriage between a highly strung musician (no pun intended) and the much younger foreigner she fell in love with: their compatibility doesn’t seem to extend outside of the bedroom, with devastating consequences in the long run.

The structure of the book — the flashbacks and the slow drip feed of information — make it an exceptionally tense read. Apart from a small lull in the middle, I kept furiously turning the pages, trying to work out what happened next, desperate to know how Peggy escaped the forest and returned to London. It’s not a thriller as such, but it brims with suspense and you know it’s building towards an uneasy climax.

Indeed, the revelations that unfold near the end are unexpected and shocking, making this one of the most astonishing — and memorable — debuts I’ve read in a long time. I immediately turned back to the start to see if I could spot the clues…

Lots of other bloggers have reviewed this book, including A Life in Books, Consumed by Ink, Word by Word and The Writes of Woman (with an author Q&A). Feel free to leave a link in the comments if I have missed yours.

Note, the author was kind enough to take part in Triple Choice Tuesday last month: you can see her choices here.