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, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, Haus Publishing, holocaust, literary fiction, Monika Held, Poland, Publisher, Setting

‘This Place Holds No Fear’ by Monika Held

This-place-holds-no-fear

Fiction – hardcover; Haus Publishing; 277 pages; 2015. Translated from the German by Anne Posten. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Monika Held’s This Place Holds No Fear is an extraordinarily beautiful novel — about survival, the power of love and the strength of one exceptional marriage.

It’s also about the Holocaust (fittingly, it was published on Holocaust Memorial Day and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz just six weeks ago), but it’s quite unlike any Holocaust novel that I have read. That’s because it’s not so much about what happens to those who are sent to the death camps while they are there but explores what happens to the survivors afterwards — how do they get on with their lives after such unfathomable horror and trauma?

A love story

The novel is essentially a love story between Heiner, a Viennese man, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 as a Communist, and Lena, a translator from Germany, who is 10 years his junior.

They meet by accident when Heiner is called to give evidence as a witness at the Auschwitz trials, held in Frankfurt in 1964, in which former SS officials and guards were tried for war crimes.

Lena is working in the court, translating evidence from Polish into German. On the 52nd day of the hearings, Heiner collapses in the hallway of the courthouse, where Lena rescues him — she wipes his brow, helps him to a chair and gets him a glass of water — forging the beginning of a love affair that endures for the next 30-plus years.

The Auschwitz legacy

As the couple’s story unfolds we learn that Heiner’s experiences at Auschwitz will forever mark him.  As prisoner 63,387,  he worked as a typist in the prisoner’s infirmary typing death records for those internees who had died.

Several times a day the SS man brings us a list with names and numbers of the dead. We don’t know how these people died. We can choose from thirty different illnesses. According to my typewriter people die of heart failure, phlegmons, pneumonia, spotted fever and typhus, embolisms, influenza, circulatory collapse, stroke, cirrhosis of the liver, scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough, and kidney failure. Under no circumstances is anyone tortured, beaten to death or shot at Auschwitz. No one starves, dies of thirst; no one is hanged, no one is gassed.

On a daily basis, Heiner witnessed great brutality and unspeakable acts of cruelty and inhumanity by the SS officers and guards, but he knew that he had to survive in order to be a witness. But life was cheap and at any point he could be the next to die:

That was the first lesson he’d learned: You can die. For looking too curious, too horrified, too bold, too submissive or not submissive enough. For walking. Too fast, too slow, too casually. You can die for saying your number wrong. Too softly, too loudly, too hesitantly, too slowly, or too fast. You can be killed for not knowing the words to a song. If a person wants to kill, any reason will do.

But after liberation there were new challenges to overcome— “He’d survived — but what was the point? The perpetrators were convicted and would serve their sentences without remorse, without understanding, without any shock over what they’d done” — and no one understood what he had gone through:

 At home people had looked at him mistrustfully: How come you’re still alive? We thought there was only one way to freedom at Auschwitz: through the chimney. Their eyes asked: What did you do? Were you a Nazi stooge? At whose cost did you survive? If only they had asked him directly. He found their secretive looks repugnant.

His first marriage, which is mentioned only in passing, falls apart when his wife and young child are unable to cope with Heiner’s ongoing suffering and his inability to escape from the shadow of Auschwitz that continues to loom over him.

By the time Lena meets him — almost 20 years after liberation — Heiner is still in the grip of that shadow. Their marriage works, not because Lena helps Heiner to overcome his pain — he can never overcome it — but because she accepts that it is part of his character, part of his being. As she tells Heiner’s friend, Tadek, who is also a Holocaust survivor, “it’s like living with a singer who can’t stop singing the song of his life”:

He sings it in the morning, he sings it at noon and in the afternoon, evening and night. It has many verses. You have to like the song or you’ll go crazy.

Marriage governed by trauma

This Place Holds No Fear offers a poignant, often moving but never sentimental, glimpse into a marriage that is governed by trauma. It’s never maudlin, however, but it distills in clear, eloquent prose (beautifully translated by Anne Posten), an unconditional love that knows no bounds.

It particularly comes into its own in the second half of the novel when the couple travel to Poland, now under Communist rule, to deliver relief supplies to other Holocaust survivors. Here, Lena listens into conversations that deeply move her, because in meeting Heiner’s comrades she comes to understand that they all share a deep need to tell their (disturbing) stories. Yes, they are psychologically damaged men, but they have managed to stay sane not by forgetting what happened to them but by remembering their unnatural pasts.

The novel is based on a true story — the author interviewed and spent time with Auschwitz survivors — so it feels incredibly authentic. It’s certainly powerful and compelling. And when I finished it, the first word that sprang to mind was not “depressing” or “traumatic” but quite simply this: “beautiful”.

Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Setting

‘Landscape of Farewell’ by Alex Miller

Landscape-of-farewell

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 336 pages; 2008.

Landscape of Farewell is Alex Miller‘s eighth novel. It was first published in 2007 and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2008.

End of a life?

The story is told from the perspective of an elderly German academic, who is grieving over the death of his beloved wife, but finds new hope for his future in a rather unexpected way.

When the book opens, we meet Professor Max Otto as he prepares to die: he has the pills and the bottle of alcohol ready, but first he has to deliver his last public lecture entitled The Persistence of the Phenomenon of Massacre in Human Society from the Earliest Times to the Present — the title and subject matter is important — in front of his peers in the grand library at Warburg Haus.

After the applause has died down, he is challenged by a member of the audience — an Aboriginal Australian academic visiting Hamburg — who says: “How can this man presume to speak of massacre and not speak of my people?”

She was like a bright, exotic raptor spreading her gorgeous plumage in the midst of the ranks of these drab fowls. Her wild cry evidently called me to account. Once she had established an expectant silence, her voice rode upon it, her words filled with scorn and contempt. She was a woman in command of her audience and was clearly intent upon defending territory. In other words, she was young, intelligent and ambitious. With a touch of annoyance, I realised that I was not going to be permitted to slip away without being required to answer for my shoddy paper.

While Max is slightly stunned by the encounter, he’s not too worried by it — his suicide awaits. But on the walk home, his accuser, Vita McLelland (whom I suspect is a thinly veiled version of Dr Anita Heiss) confronts him again and the pair end up going for a drink, which distracts Max from his planned death.

The pair strike up a surprising friendship, and Max is invited to Australia to talk at a conference Vita is organising. During his visit he spends several weeks staying with Vita’s uncle, a cultural adviser and Aboriginal elder, in the Queensland bush, where he finally comes to terms with a past he has long sought to forget.

Sins of the fathers

The most surprising element of this book is the way in which it focuses on the “sins of the fathers” without ever once mentioning the word “Nazi” or term “Jewish holocaust” — and yet, clearly, this is what Max has been struggling with his whole life:

The subject of massacre, however, had obsessed me for a time in my youth, but I had found myself unable to make any headway in it owing to my emotional inhibitions, not least of which was a paralysing sense of guilt-by-association with the crimes of my father’s generation, and after several false starts I had abandoned the subject and fallen silent. It had remained an unexamined silence throughout my life and was my principal regret.

This keeping quiet about troubling events — or, as Vita puts it, “our inability to memorialise the deeds of our fathers” — is something shared by Vita’s uncle, the quiet and hard-working Dougald, whose great-grandfather, the warrior Gnapun, was responsible for the massacre of a white community in which 19 people died*.

When Dougald shares this story with Max, he asks Max to write it down for him so that it can be passed on to others and not die with him. This allows Max to see that there are ways to tell the truth about subjects that are hard to talk about and that shameful pasts are not unique to Germans unable to deal with what happened in the Second World War.

Common links

What I loved most about Landscape of Farewell is the way Miller takes two seemingly disparate cultures — Germans and Indigenous Australians — and shows their surprising similarities. Indeed, the message seems to be that we are all human, are all troubled by past wrongs but that it is up to successive generations to deal with that and to find their own truth in order to move forward.

But this is also very much a book about silence and the ways in which men find it difficult to open up to one another. It’s a significant turning point in the novel when Max and Dougald finally talk about important matters, because it is only then that the pair — and Max in particular — can reconcile their own individual pasts with the history of their respective countries.

At this point it would be remiss of me not to point out that the landscape of the Australian bush plays a strong role in the novel too, for it is the silence of these wide open spaces that gives Max room to think, which, in turn, aids his “recovery”.

Landscape of Farewell is a wise, knowing and intelligent novel, not only about grappling with history, but of growing old, forging friendships and being kind to one another. It makes me even more keen to read the rest of Miller’s prize-winning back catalogue.

* In his Acknowledgements, Miller says this is based on the Cullin-la-Ringo massacre, supposedly the largest-ever massacre of white settlers by Indigenous Australians in Australia’s history. You can read more about this event at Wikipedia.

Author, Birgit Vanderbeke, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Peirene Press

‘The Mussel Feast’ by Birgit Vanderbeke

Mussel-feast

Fiction – paperback; Peirene; 105 pages; 2013. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast is a classic in the author’s native Germany, where it was published to critical and popular acclaim in 1990. It won the prestigious German-language literature award,  the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, that same year. It has recently been translated into English by London-based Peirene Press.

I loved this book so much, I read it twice — when it initially came out in May and then again last weekend. It’s a tiny package, but reading it is like peeling an onion: there are so many layers that it’s almost impossible to appreciate them all first time round.

Celebratory feast

On the face of it, the story appears to be a very simple one. A woman and her two teenage children sit around the dinner table awaiting the arrival of the patriarch of the family, whom they expect to return home with news of a promotion at work. A celebratory feast of mussels and wine has been prepared. But the father is late and there is no word from him to explain his delay. Why has he not called? Has he been in an accident?

In the meantime — as the mussels grow cold and the wine gets consumed — the daughter begins to recall memories of her father and his role in the family. This is when the story takes on a deeper purpose: to show that there is more going on than meets the eye.

What emerges is a rather startling portrait of a tyrannical man, whose idealised version of what constitutes a family and family life can never reach his unrealistic expectations. And instead of drawing everyone together, he has splintered his family apart by his funny notions and cruel ways. It is, essentially, a metaphor for East and West Germany, reflecting the time period in which the book was written, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Odd ideas and notions

It turns out that the father has some rather odd ideas but is so convinced by their “rightness” that he can never be properly challenged on them. So, for example, when the children are growing up, he never lets them play outside in the fresh air with the neighbourhood children on a Sunday afternoon, because one of his “notions about a proper family dictated that all of us should all do something together” — this usually meant a very long drive, but by the time they arrived at their destination the car park would be full and their father would become furious.

He also has very funny ideas about money and thinks “that scrimping on investments is the height of provincialism”. He lives in fear of being seen as stingy or poor. This means he is overly generous with his tips at restaurants, despite not being able to afford it, and considers any clothes bought off-the-peg as “rejects”.

You can spot off-the-peg clothing from miles away, my father said, and whenever my mother wore a new dress he immediately spotted that it was another reject. You don’t have any style, he said; my mother agreed that she didn’t have any style, how could I have any style when I need to ensure that we have enough, while you’re throwing heaps of money out the window; but my father said, it’s not heaps, and, I can’t help it if you’re stingy, and then the door would slam and my father rushed out, coming back in the early hours, drunk.

Humour in the horror

This may make the book sound like a rather grim, depressing tale, but the beauty of Vanderbeke’s narrative is the highly nuanced and intelligent “voice” which lets us “read between the lines” and catch glimpses, not just of the terror at the heart of these people’s lives, but of the hope and wit too.

And because the story is narrated by the daughter, in one long, often repetitive, hypnotic monologue, the picture that emerges feels authentic and real.

I wouldn’t describe it as a black comedy, but I laughed a lot while reading this book — mainly at this man’s preposterous ideas and the ways in which his wife and his children humoured him. You get a very real sense that he is tolerated, perhaps even respected, but the first chance they get to live their lives the way they want to live them, they will take it — with both hands. If he doesn’t appear at the dinner table, then perhaps it won’t be such a tragic turn of events after all…

Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, Josephine Hart, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Virago

‘The Truth About Love’ by Josephine Hart

Truth-about-love

Fiction – paperback; Virago Press; 256 pages; 2009.

I first read Josephine Hart, the Irish-born British writer, in the early 1990s. Her first two novels, Damage and Sin, were page-turners of the highest order. But I never got around to reading any of her later work. When I stumbled upon the last novel she wrote — The Truth About Love — in a charity shop a couple of weeks ago for the princely sum of £1.99 it seemed an excellent opportunity to reacquaint myself with her writing.

A story about memory

Despite the somewhat soppy title, The Truth About Love is not romantic fiction. This is a powerful story about history, guilt and trying to move on in a world that never forgets. No surprise then that the two central figures in the book are German and Irish — one of whom is trying to forget the past; the other for whom history is everything.

The story opens in rather spectacular style when we are thrust into the disorientating thoughts of someone dying — “Get a priest and a doctor! Quickly! Quickly! Get a priest! Confession! Get priest first!” The entire first chapter is like this — all confusion and people shouting things at one another with only little snippets of information being revealed. I initially thought it was set somewhere on the battlefields of the First World War, only to discover it was somewhere in rural Ireland in 1962 — and later I was even more astonished to discover that it was a teenage boy who had been fatally wounded in an unexplained explosion in his family’s back garden.

That explosion — and death — haunts the O’Hara family for the entire novel. The mother, Sissy, never quite recovers from the loss of her son, despite her husband’s efforts to comfort and console her. And matters are only made worse when the local community begins to circulate rumours that the boy may have been making explosives for the IRA — although the family claim he was merely making a rocket.

Personal tragedy

While this family tragedy shapes the core of the novel, Hart manages to place it in a wider context by using it as a metaphor for the great tragedies of the first half of the 20th century — specifically the Nazi concentration camps of the Second World War, and the Irish War of Independence, where sometimes families were pitted against other families, and hundreds of men and women died.

There’s a very telling conversation quite early on in the novel, when Tom O’Hara, the grieving father, approaches his German neighbour about the possibility of buying a gate from him. The gate, imported from Germany, has a helmet on it and was much admired by Tom’s son who called it “the warrior’s gate”. Tom wants to put it in the back entrance to his garden as a kind of memorial, but his neighbour is reluctant to part with it. He does, however, promise to consider the idea.

“[…] thank you about the gate. Considering it, at least. Like I said, you’ve been a gentleman to me. I won’t forget.”
“You’re Irish, Mr O’Hara. Forgetfulness is not possible.”
“And you’re German, Mr Middlehoff. No doubt memory is a burden.”

Over the course of the novel this theme recurs over and over, like a mantra, as it infuses each character’s outlook and actions.

A story about Ireland

Not a great deal happens in the novel — it’s more character driven than plot led — but it has multiple narrators who take up the story in turn. Through this, we learn of Mrs O’Hara’s inability to get over her loss (in her own words) and of Mr Middlehoff’s exile and the strange love affairs he conducts when he thinks no one is looking. And, of course, we learn about his past and how he views the country where he has exiled himself, a kind of outsider’s view of Ireland in the 1960s.

Ireland’s more recent tragic history —  especially the IRA’s attacks on mainland Britain in the 1970s and 80s — is taken up by the O’Hara’s daughter, Olivia, who leaves the country for England, where she marries and has children. Her first-person narrative, which begins somewhere around page 150,  looks back over the course of three decades and tells the story not only of Ireland, but of her family’s grief and Mr Middlehoff’s tangled past from a different perspective.

An intense read

The Truth About Love is by no means an easy read — and it is somewhat of a departure from the author’s earlier work. But there’s something about the prose —  fiery and elegant by turns — and her refusal to fill in all the gaps, so that the reader must make up their own mind about certain things, that reminds me very much of the best of Jennifer Johnston’s work.

It’s a very intense story, almost too intense, so that whenever I read it I began to feel claustrophobic. But with that intensity comes a power and an intelligence that marks this book as something rather special. Sadly, it was Hart’s last novel: she died from cancer in June last year.

Aidan Higgins, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, New Island, Publisher, Setting

‘Langrishe, Go Down’ by Aidan Higgins

Langrishe, Go Down

Fiction – paperback; New Island Books; 320 pages; 2007.

First published in 1966, Aidan Higgins’ first novel, Langrishe, Go Down, is regarded as an Irish classic. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Irish Academy of Letters Award, and was later made into a television movie based on a screenplay by the great Harold Pinter.

It is by no means an easy read — it features literary flourishes characteristic of high modernism and a narrative that switches between third person and first person seemingly on a whim — but it is a rich and rewarding one. I also found it profoundly moving.

The story is set in Ireland in the 1930s. Four middle-aged sisters live in a crumbling estate set on 72 acres in Celbridge, County Kildare. They are unusual in that they are landed Catholics, but their parents are dead and the money has long since run out. But their social standing remains, even if the only way they can pay their bills is to cut down a stately ash tree in the garden for two quid (a trend started by their late father, who felled trees and sold them for firewood when he was desperate for cash).

The book opens with the older sister, Helen, taking a crowded bus journey back home from an outing in Dublin. It is evening and the bus is awash with “circles of bilious light” and “warm gusts of sweetish nauseous air”, all brought incredibly alive by Higgins’ masterful writing. Without any mention of time or date, we get an immediate sense of period by the Evening Herald lying open on Helen’s knee:

Well muffled up against the elements, the passengers read that the Italians were arming, that Herr von Ribbentrop had made a provocative speech at the Leipzig Fair, that the Pope had graciously given audience to Monsignor Pisani, Archbishop of Tomi. General Franco had spoken on the destined march of free Spain. At Melbourne, in cool summer weather, Australia had retained the Ashes.

By the time Helen gets home, we know the world is in a dire situation, that the Spanish Civil War is in full swing and the trouble is brewing in Germany. But the home front isn’t much better. Helen’s younger sister, Imogen, is prone to hypochondria and spends her days in bed, not wanting to rise, and her diet, comprising thin omelets sprinkled with parsley, has left her pale and weak. But what led to this situation?

The answer is revealed in part II, when the story jumps back in time, to 1932. In just over 150 pages, Higgins details the secret affair Imogen leads with her German lover, Otto Beck, a mature-age student who lives on the Langrishe farm. Otto is an intellectual, well read, well travelled and prone to talking endlessly about himself and his studies. (He is working on a thesis entitled The Ossianic Problem and the Actual Folk Sagas and Customs in 17th Century Ireland with special reference to the work of Goethe and the Brothers Grimm: a sociological-philological-critical study, a title that Imogen so deftly points out is “a bit of a mouthful”.) Imogen, a 40-something virgin, sees him as her last chance to experience love.

They embark on a passionate affair — which lasts “two springs, two summers, three autumns and two winters” — and suddenly Imogen’s rather routine domestic life takes on a new exciting element. But when she begins to realise that self-absorbed Otto is taking her for granted, that he is only interested in her body and not her mind, the relationship hits rocky ground. I don’t think it is a spoiler to say it ends badly, but it is heart-rending to read.

The breakdown of their relationship is perhaps a metaphor for the tragic decline of the house in which Imogen was raised. As the property falls into ruin, so, too, does Imogen’s simple, chaste life. Similarly, the ties that bind the sisters together begin to fray until very little love or friendship between them remains. And we could take it even further and suggest it mirrors the demise of Ireland’s old order of power, too.

If this sounds like a terribly melancholy story, then you’d be right. It’s heart-breaking in places, particularly when you realise that much of Imogen’s behaviour is characterised by small acts of desperation in order to escape her dull, dreary life. But there’s other emotion here, too, including love, passion and sexual desire, which balances the despair.

While this novel won’t be to everyone’s tastes — too literary, too modernist, too experimental — I thoroughly enjoyed it, not least because it took me right out of my comfort zone and introduced me to a novel regarded by so many as a masterpiece.