Translated by Basil Creighton (1930)

When Caroline reviewed Vicki Baum’s most famous novel during the inaugural German Literature Month, I decided I’d like to read it too. It’s taken some tracking down but I did eventually find a copy.  I’m also starting two new reading projects.  1) To read every novelist included in the book German Novelists of the Weimar Republic (due to my new-found love of all things Weimar) and 2) a themed read of Berlin through the ages as a follow-on from Rory Maclean’s brilliant history of Berlin.  Let me start then on both projects with the entry for Berlin in the 1920s.

It was a bit of a challenge.  I’m not a fan of foxed books and this copy from 1948 is more than slightly foxed.  

Also post-WWII production values leave something to be desired. (As is to be expected.) There were quite a few pages where the print was blurred.  Still after about 30 pages I found that Baum’s story-telling abilities had drawn me in sufficiently to be able to ignore both of these hurdles.

The setting is as opulent as the title suggests:

Here the jazz band from the tea-room encountered the violins from the Winter Gardens, while mingled with them came the thin murmur of the illuminated fountain as it fell into its imitation Venetian basin, the ring of glasses on tables, the creaking of wicker chairs and, lastly, a soft rustle of the furs and silks in which women were moving too and fro.

Through the revolving doors comes a microcosm of society, colourful characters, one and all: Doctor Otternschlag, a man with a disfigured face and a glass eye (injuries from World War One); Grunsinskaya, an ageing and fading ballerina; Preysing, from the provinces, in Berlin to broker a business-saving deal, hopelessly out of his depth;  the good-lookng and charming Baron von Gaigern, thief and con-man, living on his uppers; the secretary and part-time good-time girl, Flämmchen, and finally, arguably the main character, Kringelein, a employee of Preysing’s with terminal cancer, who has quite independently of his employer, withdrawn his savings, left his miserable wife and job and fled to the Grand Hotel to discover life before it is too late.

Do you notice a connection here?  All, with the exception of Doctor Otternschlag, a harbinger of doom, who spends his days staring at the revolving doors, are pretending to be something they are not. As indeed is the hotel.

In the corridor an electrician was kneeling on the floor, busied over some repair to the wires.  Ever since they had had those powerful lights to illuminate the hotel frontage there had always been something going wrong with the overworked installation of the hotel.

Is the hotel an allegory for the Weimar Republic itself?  A state, in 1929 when the novel was originally published,  aspiring to be a haven of security for its inhabitants but struggling against the currents that were to overwhelm it in the early 1930’s?  I’m not fully conversant with the history of the Weimar Republic (I am working on it), but I suspect this may be the case.

Kringelein’s backstory is one of deprivation and drudgery. Yet he has life savings to squander in his final fling search for happiness.  Proof that this is pre-currency crash, even if there are signs of economic instability.  Flämmchen, too, displays traits of the decadence which was to characterise the Weimar Republic.

All this is an implicit imterpretation. Baum in no way labours the point.  The interactions of the main cast during their three-day mini-break are entertaining, engaging and life-changing.  Burglary, love-affairs, downfall of the stalwarts of society, murder in a meticulously planned novel.  The faulty wiring from page one plays a very consequential role. When all is said and done, however, and the cast has departed, Doctor Otterschlag remains in the lounge, a stone image of loneliness and death and

The revolving door turns and turns – and swings …. and swings … and swings ….


(Perhaps a third reading project is called for: to read the many books I have purchased on the recommendation of my German Literature Month co-hostess.)

I had intended to write this post as a translation duel but decided I would have to quote full poems and their translations to do it properly.  I don’t think Rilke would mind but the translators might be upset me quoting their copyright translations in full (particularly when I wax less than lyrical).

It would appear that since the inaugural German Literature Month during which Emma passionately advocated her admiration of Rilke the man, I, who had never read him, have been collecting modern English translations.

All three have one thing in common.  They all present the translation in parallel to the original poem. I like that. I can appreciate Rilke in his own words, admire just how beautiful German can be (a revelation at times) and admire the solutions that the various translators have conjured. I’m sure I would admire them more if I could appreciate metre, but I’m afraid I’m metre-deaf.  Still I can understand allusion, simile, metaphor and meaning, so all is not lost.

Two of the volumes are collaborations: The Oxford volume (two Rilke experts: Susan Ranson and Marielle Sutherland) and the Essential Rilke (Galway Kinnell, a Pulitzer Prize winning, non-German speaking poet and Hannah Liebmann, a native German speaker).  In Pure Contradiction, Ian Crockatt, a Scottish crofter, translator of Old Norse skaldic poetry and poet in his own right, flies solo.  His critically acclaimed translation won the 2013 Schlegel-Tieck Prize.

There is an extensive introduction in each book with explanations on how the translators approached the task and their objectives.  These introductions serve as excellent references to what makes Rilke so difficult to translate: his purposed vagueness, his subversion of German formations, his casting of several stanzas into one sentence. It’s no wonder that there are so many translations of his work, or that the results are so different from one another.

The results depend upon the translator’s ethic.  Whether they wished to create a translation as true to Rilke as possible (Kinnell/Liebmann) or wished to create a modern English alternative (Crockatt).  Not that Crockatt makes that claim; that’s how I read them.  Given that I abandoned the Ranson/Sutherland volume for adding flourishes and meanings that I didn’t see in the original, often to preserve the metre, Crockatt’s translations didn’t sit well with me.  The final straw was his translation of Leda.

Als ihn der Gott in seiner Not betrat,
erschrak er fast, den Schwan so schön zu finden;
er ließ sich ganz verwirrt in ihm verschwinden.
Schon aber trug ihn sein Betrug zur Tat,

bevor er noch des unerprobten Seins
Gefühle prüfte. Und die Aufgetane
erkannte schon den Kommenden im Schwane
und wußte schon er bat um Eins,

das sie, verwirrt in ihrem Widerstand,
nicht mehr verbergen konnte. Er kam nieder
und halsend durch die immer schwächre Hand

ließ sich der Gott in die Geliebte los.
Dann erst empfand er glücklich sein Gefieder
und wurde wirklich Schwan in ihrem Schoß.

Now we know that this describes the rape of Leda by Zeus.  Yet Rilke choses not to portray the event in an explicitly violent way. He could have; the German words existed. Yet Crockatt’s poem reads like an x-rated movie.  (And thus do his sales figures soar.) A non-German speaking reader appreciates his translation more than me.  In this particular case I dispute his claim that “Where I have created some new metaphor,or taken a direction he (Rilke) does not take, it is to bring to life and clarity the apparent significance of the poetry for 21st century English language readers, not to deliberately replace or distort his thought or expression”. Nor did I find this an isolated case.

I much prefer the Kinnell/Liebmann collaboration; the collection where the final translations were shaped by a non-German speaking poet. They are more literal; hence more accurate.  Yet they preserve the imagery, subtlety and grace of the originals.  Why mess with the master?

West – Julia Franck

Translated by Anthea Bell

West is an early novel by Julia Franck, published in 2003, even if only released in English last month.  I’m always a bit nervous when this happens.  Can the early work live up to the one that hooked me to an author in the first place?   In Franck’s case Blind Side of the Heart was the deal-clincher.  Quick answer to the question regarding expectations: not quite, but this book is so much better, and subtler, than last year’s release: Back to Back.

Nelly Senff is escaping to the West.  An organic scientist, she applied for her exit visa after the death of her lover and father of her children.  In the East, this was a automatic trigger to remove her from her profession and force her to eke a living through a menial set of jobs.  Nelly though sticks with her decision and finally obtains her exit permit. The novel opens as she is being driven to the border to make the crossing.

The Stasi aren’t finished with her yet.  There are still a few hours left for them to play with her … (She must leave by midnight, and, unfortunately,  she’s left a bit early.). What follows during the pages of chapter 1 is shocking. Be warned.  Though as reprehensible as the actions of the Stasi are, I found myself even more shocked by Nelly’s passivity. Yes, I understand her wish not to jeopardise her desired outcome.  Nevertheless there was something disconcerting about it.

It’s not until she reaches the other side and is again detained for questioning by the CIA that we find out that there are questions relating to the death of her lover.  Her Russian lover, who was suspected of being a spy by the East, is suspected of the same by the West.  But he’s dead, isn’t he?  Nelly, who was denied access to his body, can’t really confirm this.

She finds herself stuck in the limbo of the transit camp, Marienfelde, where life proves to be far from the liberating experience hoped for. Firstly, she has to negotiate the attentions of the western Secret Services (in official and less than official capacities) then the less than satisfying conditions in the camp, followed by the humiliations and condescensions meted out to refugees, whether this be the paucity of funds or the at times extreme bullying of her children at school.  It’s stressful for her,  and not at all a good advert for the FDR.

Not that difficulty is confined to Nelly.  Krystyna Jablonovska has fled with her crabbit (good Scottish word that) father in search of decent medical treatment for her brother.  Hans Pischke, a creepy little man, if I may say so, also finds himself stuck in the camp.  He’s the only man who does not seemed beguiled by Nelly’s charms, yet he is the one with whom she develops the nearest thing to friendship.  It doesn’t help her case that he is suspected of being a Stasi plant …. Krystyna and Hans’s stories are told from their own point of view.  So too is that of John Bird, one of the CIA officers who interrogate Nelly as  she crosses the border. He turns out to be a CIA officer with a conscience, with additional reasons for his own unhappiness. John Bird’s story provides a necessary balance in the narrtive. Franck shows that it was the political divide wreaked havoc on all, not just the select few.

And yet, I remained as distant as Nelly to the other characters.  Something doesn’t quite gel.  A bit like that yellow dress and blue sandals that Nelly is wearing on the book jacket. It’s only when I contemplate Nelly as a woman in shock, driven to the edges of sanity by both Germanies, that the pieces of the jigsaw begin to fit.


Translated by Tim Mohr

There is a pattern developing to my #germanlitmonth reading.  This is the third novel in a row that takes me back to Hessen, where I lived for 8 years.    1) Goetheruh in which the main protagonist commutes between Weimar and Frankfurt am Main  2) Big Bad Wolf – Set on the surrounding areas of Frankfurt 3) Bronsky’s latest which starts in Berlin but migrates to Einhausen near Darmstadt. Is there a subliminal message being sent that I need to go back?  No – nothing subliminal about it.  All I need is … (Let’s not start that conversation here.)

Not that Einhausen fares particularly well in Bronsky’s novel, in comparison to Berlin:

i stood before a gray box that was mostly hidden behind a meter-high hedgerow that smelled like cough syrup … The place was a nightmare in concrete. After all those years in our historic landmarked building, I wasn’t prepared for this.

Then again, Einhausen is described through the eyes of a majorly disaffected teenager.  You know how teenagers get so hung up on their looks?  Well, Marek has reasons for that. Following a Rottweiler attack, his face is badly disfigured. The title of the book stems from this incident.

I didn’t step between you and the animal because I was unbelievable chivalrous.  You can call me a superhero for all I care, but just bear in mind that I never was one … it was first and foremost a reflex, and secondly an accident …..

The formerly handsome, confident boy retreats behind his sunglasses, confines himself to barracks and nurses the chip on his shoulder. When we meet him, the psychological disfigurement is uglier than the physical. 

His mother, who he calls by her first name, Claudia (I hate that), persuades him to attend a self-help group for cripples. (Marek’s vocabulary is uncompromising – it is an indicator of his self-disgust.) The group is attended amongst others by a blind person, someone suffering from a mysterious chronic illness, and a beautiful girl in a wheelchair, with whom Marek falls in love. It is led by a guru, who is anything but. 

The lessons to be learned are clear.  There is still value and worth in a person who is disabled.  There is more to a person than looks.  Real friendships are possible but a person must possess some nobility of character. That may seem obvious but this is Marek’s bildungsroman and for an adolescent with a ravaged face, those are lessons that are going to take some learning.

Bronsky is a quirky and un-PC writer and it may be the bluntness of Marek’s narrative and the black humour in association with disabililty that sits uncomfortably with some reviewers.  It did with me for a while but then, knowing the self-absorption, jaundice and bitterness that can infect a chronically-ill teenager, and the impact that has on the rest of the family, I decided that there was more truth to Bronsky’s tale than not.  Humour is not a sugar coating.  It’s a survival mechanism.  And when Claudia finally snapped, I applauded.

“Don’t talk to me about your face,” said Claudia, “I know it is a lot better than you at this point.”

To be frank, the novel’s not always in the best possible taste, and it is packed with some mighty screwed-up folk.  Nevertheless, in an object lesson for Marek, Bronsky leads the way in stripping back surface layers to reveal the deeper psychological truths below.


Translated by Steven T Murray

All it takes is one brilliant idea.  Nele Neuhaus had her lightbulb moment when she decided that Snow White Must Die.  That novel won Neuhaus a new readership, became her first to be translated into English, and those who thoroughly enjoyed it couldn’t wait to pick up Big Bad Wolf.  Include me in those numbers.

The big is missing from the German title, Böser Wolf, and from the literally translated American, Bad Wolf.  So it’s an addition to the English title but it is an improvement.  It has a better ring; it preserves the fairy tale connection, and it enhances the threat and menace.  The big bad wolf is the stuff of nightmares and so are the contents of this book.

The starting point, Neuhaus revealed at her recent Bloody Scotland event, was a still unsolved case.  The body of a young teenage girl was pulled out the River Main. Her corpse told a story of long term violent and sexual abuse.  No one came to claim the body and she has yet to be identifed. How can such a thing happen?  Big Bad Wolf is Neuhaus’s exploratory answer to that question.

Nele Neuhaus at Bloody Scotland

It’s a long answer – a sprawling multi-stranded affair involving unscrupulous people doing unspeakable things to children.  Thankfully not described in graphic detail, although Neuhaus does not flinch from describing the torture inflicted on the adults who suspect the existence of and begin to investigate the paedophile ring. That is sickening enough.  She does, however, more subtly describe the effects of child sexual abuse in a domestic setting and the impact on both the victim and the unsuspecting parents.

The subject matter made this a difficult book to write, said Neuhaus, and I found it a difficult book to read for the same reason. Ultimately though, Neuhaus knows her trade, paces the novel well, and brings the many strands together in a fast-moving, if, at times, unfeasible climax.  (I had the same issue with Snow White Must Die, though I must admit both novels would make excellent TV.)

Whether the ending is satisfactory, depends on acceptance of the deep chill in the final sentence …. 



There’s nothing to beat being in a place you love.  When that can’t be, reading a novel set in a place you love is an acceptable substitute – and that’s exactly the role that Bernd Köstering’s crime trilogy set in Weimar will play in the next few months.  Crime?  In Weimar – that bastion of German culture and refinement? Yes, indeedy.  A particularly heinous crime, I may add.  Someone is stealing treasured artefacts from Goethe’s house in the Frauenplan.


The Goethehaus on the Frauenplan


Not the showy pieces – items that wouldn’t be missed by the casual visitor.  Nevertheless the experts pick up on the crime immediately. There are no clues on site, suggesting that the thief is well aware of the security gaps. And he can strike with impunity .. He graduates from Goethe’s main house to his summer house (pictured on the book jacket).  Items even go missing from the Goethe Museum in Frankfurt on Main.  As his confidence grows, so does the size of the items he pilfers. Cue panic in officialdom.  This story must not hit the press before the crime is resolved.  It’s 1999  and Weimar is the European City of Culture.  A city’s reputation and the nation’s heritage is at stake.

The criminal, however, sends clues in the form of quotes from Goethe’s oeuvre.  The mayor calls in a professor and renowned  Goethe expert Hendrik Wilmut to unravel the puzzle.  What follows is not just a promenade through the city of Weimar but also through the life, friendships, enmities and works of the city’s most famous inhabitant.  Wilmut develops the theory that the thief believes himself to be Goethe reincarnated and that helps him close in.  As he does, however, the game changes.  A quotation from Goethe’s very sinister Erl-King heralds an abduction.  Suddenly it’s a matter of life and death.

The chase leads us through the landmarks of the city, 

from the White Swan restaurant, literally next door to Goethe’s house, where the investigating team meet for some very cozy lunches 

The White Swan

via the church of Saint Peter and Paul, where Herder, Goethe’s onetime friend and mentor, preached



to the dramatic finale in the Fürstengruft, where Goethe lies next to Schiller.

The final resting place

The identity of the criminal isn’t particularly difficult to spot – given the obvious mental issues involved.  Neither is the writing  sparkling (though that might be because this was the first novel I’ve read in German for 20 years).  It was a case of location, location, location for me.  Everywhere Wilmut went, every restaurant, every dish on the menu was identifiable.  Of course, it helped that I was actually in Weimar at the time of reading.  It meant that I could use Köstering’s novel like an off-beat tour guide. Which I did, in style, in one of these:

Sightseeing Weimar style


I also ate a rather unique dish in The White Swan: 

Beerenpfannkuchen mit Liebeserklärung

The declaration of love turned out to be a love poem from Goethe to Charlotte von Stein.  Sweet and delicious, just like the berry omelette! 

I wonder what delights await when I read the second in the trilogy, Goetheglut?  Should I wrangle myself another trip to Weimar before I do?

Winner of the 2008 German Book Prize

Translated by Mike Mitchell

Well, I certainly exercised my muscles reading this one!  My biceps have been toned by a 1004 page chunkster, published by Allen Lane, though for those who prefer e-books, it is also available from Frisch & Co.  

The Tower is an elaborate and intricate novel, requiring serious attention. It doesn’t read quickly and is as good a work out for the brain as for the biceps. I suspect it will spawn many a Ph. D.  I took six weeks to read it (with interruptions – I found I needed some light relief now and again) but I can’t think of a more appropriate book to review on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall.

Tellkamp’s novel charts the last five year’s of the GDR, mainly through the experience of the Hoffmann family: Richard, the father, Christian, the son, and Meno, Christian’s uncle.  It starts in the run-up to Richard’s 50th birthday gathering, a set-piece which Germanists will recognise is a nod to Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks.  Further nods are evident in the long, complex sentences (which the translator Mike Mitchell has chosen to preserve) and the echo of the novel’s subtitle. Tellkamp’s scope is grander than Mann’s though.  This is not only a family going to ruin, but a whole society, and that without an iota of Ostalgie. 

Not that Tellkamp blasts with both barrels blazing. His is an intellectual dismantling of the state.  Richard is a surgeon; Meno a literary editor; Christian is at the start a high school pupil, wishing to follow in his father’s footsteps. They have as comfortable an existence as possible in the GDR.  They live in the Tower – a district, on the heights of Dresden, a kind of intellectual space, cushioned in some respects from the crass realities of life in the GDR.  This allows them to enjoy their social gatherings, their musical recitals, and the relative freedom to make the state the butt of their jokes.

Their ‘freedom’ is but an illusion. The state is everywhere and chinks in personal armour ruthlessly exploited. Richard has sired a second family and the Stasi uses that to exert pressure on him to become an informer. His refusal has repercussions on the whole family but most particularly on Christian, a Tonio Kröger figure (more allusions to Mann), who pays the price of his father’s missteps and his own youthful naivety. His story, which contains elements of the author’s own, is of a person who must be crushed.  Extended army service, it transpires, is an excellent vehicle for such uncompromising outcomes.

Of the three, Meno fairs best.  A zoologist by training, he now works as an editor for a prestigious publisher. While there is no doubting his love of literature, and his recognition of literary talent, he is not the man to disregard state policy and he continues to censor the works of those he publishes. Nor will he defend the talented female author, Judith Schevola,  even when she is threatened with expulsion from the Writer’s Union and the loss of her livelihood. 

The scientist in him makes Meno a keen observer, and parts of the novel take the form of his personal diary and notebooks.  I’ll be honest here.  I dreaded those italicised sections.  So much detail equalled too much detail for me.  Although I resisted the urge to skim, these sections often felt like a call to admire the author’s descriptive prowess. Instead they killed the pace …. 

That’s not to say that there isn’t some skillful writing to be enjoyed and admired. The stealing of the trees for the hospital’s inter-departmental Christmas tree contest is priceless; the visit to the Leipzig Book Fair illuminating. (Actually, a Meno entry, so they are not all tedious). Christian’s experiences are harrowing, as the state reduces him to the no-one indicated by his nickname, Nemo.  For those who love nothing better than layer upon layer of literary intertextuality, Tellkamp offers many, many more than I could register.

Behind it all, however, is life as it was lived in the GDR. The mundanity, the shortages, the farce, the corruption, the fear of the hidden informer. Lives made and broken at the whim of a faceless state.  It is only in the final 50 pages, or as holes in Iron Curtain appear in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, that dissenting voices find the courage for public protest. The army is deployed to control the masses.  This state is not about to surrender. 

But then, all at once …

The clocks struck, struck 9 November, ‘Germany, our Fatherland’, their chimes knocking on the Brandenburg Gate:

 The rest they say is history.



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