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Archive for the ‘novelle’ Category

My intention for German Literature Month was, apart from the readalongs and Kleist, to discover new authors.  This post should have been a review of something by E T A Hoffman but after Vishy posted about Immensee during week 1, I found it utterly inconceivable that I should spend a month reading German literature and not pick up anything by Theodor Storm.  So my apologies to Hoffman – your day will come, I promise –   but for now I have returned to the bosom of my second beloved Theodor.  Don’t ask me to pick between Theodor Fontane or Theodor Storm …

who were contemporaries and friends.  While Fontane wrote novels, Storm restricted himself to novellas.  Economic circumstances dictated this choice to some extent. Storm had a large family to support and novellas have a faster turnaround.  Also the novella has roots in oral story telling. They are stories to be told/read in one sitting.  According to Fontane, Storm was a fantastic storyteller.

I can still see how we sat round the large oval table, the ladies with their work in their hands, we with our eyes directed expectantly at Storm.  But, instead of beginning, he first stood up, and making an apologetic bow towards Frau Kugler, went to the door to lock it.  The thought that the servant might come in with tea was intolerable to him.  Then he turned the oil-lamp right down, though it was already provided with a semi-opaque green shade, and then he began …. He was totally engaged in what he read, almost intoning the words, while his eyes lit up like a sorcerer’s peering at us at the same time to measure the kind of effect his words were having on us at every turn.  We were supposed to be captivated by the ghostly, amused by the humorous … He wanted to read each and every response in our faces … (Theodor Fontane – From Twenty to Thirty)

If Storm had been reading my face, whilst I was reading this fourth collection of stories translated by Denis Jackson, he would have found the captivation he sought in his live audiences.  What an immeasurably sad series of tales documenting the transcience of life,  the loss of familial relationships, and the impossibility of living up to our ideals, promises and plans in a world which is indifferent to our sufferings and carries on regardless.  All told with the greatest economy and precision and translated in the same way, I may add.

This collection contains four of Storm’s novellas.  By the Fireside takes us to the heart of a 19th-century household as its occupants gather round the fireside for an evening of ghostly story telling.  The Swallows of St George’s shows how easy it is to lose the love of one’s life forever.  The Last Farmstead wraps the devastating impact of the Napoleonic Wars on Storm’s beloved Schleswig-Holstein into an allegorical love story.  Carsten The Trustee shows how even the most honourable and well-intentioned parent can still fail their child.  (Well, we can discuss whether that is actually the case, but it’s certainly the burden of guilt that Carsten feels – a reflection of the troubled relationship that Storm himself experienced in relation to his eldest son, Hans.)

I felt sad reading this stories for two reasons.  1) The empathy I felt with both the author and his characters and 2) This is the fourth volume of translations by Denis Jackson. I have read the other three and reviewed two of them here and here.  What is a girl to do now besides hope that there are more volumes to follow?  (Please DJ,  hear my pleas!)  In the meantime, there is no other option.  It’s time to go back to the start and read them all again!

P.S  A piece of book cover trivia -  Compare the cover of Carsten The Trustee with an earlier Penguin edition of German Literature Month Readalong Effi Briest.  The picture which graces the cover of books by both my beloved Theodors is known to the world as Living-Room with the Artist’s Sister by A von Menzel. I call it Effi in Kessin.  It’s no wonder I went to visit her in the Neue Pinakothek last time I was in Munich.

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From the dust jacket:

Lore Segal’s tour de force look at the New York Literary scene was a hit with it was first released in the 1970′s, winning the praise of the literary elite.  …. It has been a cult classic ever since.

What associations do I start to make?  1970′s cult classic – they’re always a bit weird, aren’t they?  I’m thinking flared trousers and psychedelic flights of fancy.  And I wouldn’t be wrong because in places this book is quite bonkers and when it’s operating on that level, I’m not trying to understand it.  Just thanking my lucky stars that I’m not married to a mediocre poet and having an affair with the superman that is my best friend Hera’s husband Zeus!

In other places, however, I’m enjoying myself immensely; accompanying Lucinella on her journey with a bunch of literati on the round of parties, writer’s seminars and other literary events; gleefully soaking up the multitude of petty jealousies that exist among them;  puzzling about Lucinella’s love life that sees her stumbling into a marriage with a man whose worship of her is not reciprocated due to the irritation of scrumpled wet towels. (Bathroom wars!  Not just confined to the 1970′s ….)

This is such a heady satire.  Affectionate in places but with such vicious, laugh out loud (shame on me) barbs in others.  Filled with writerly angst.

Yesterday, he says, he changed a comma to a period-capital-A and copied the whole poem over and saw it should have been a comma and changed it back, and copied it over, and changed it back to a period. All day, for a week, for months, he has been changing this same comma and can’t go on until he gets it right.

Lucinella herself an aspiring poet, but her writer’s block caused by an obsession to get her filing system in order.

Tuesday I file Art.  The soap operas I write evenings go in a pink folder.  Mornings I write poetry, which I subdivide into the poem, that won a prize, which goes into a blue folder tied with a ribbon; abandoned ideas I put in a black one, and those on which I am at work in green, isn’t it, for hope?

It appears there are so many pitfalls to the literary life.  This novella portrays three contemporaneous Lucinellas. The young aspiring Lucinella, a hanger-on, ill-read but ambitious; the old Lucinella, never quite made it as a poet and not always in full possession of her faculties; and the narrator, not sure if she’s middle-aged or not but still obsessive and not quite up to the standard of her peers. This Lucinella’s major preoccupation is how to make her images dovetail.  Which they do eventually but only when she’s lying on a therapist’s couch!

I suspect there are many writer’s obsessions documented in these pages.  Not least that of appearing in the work of a friend.  The source of many a ruined friendship

Are you coming? she asks me.

“Not with you, I’m not,” I say.

“Why?” cries Ulla.  “What did I do?” 

“You put me in your novel,” I say.

“Did I say something unkind or untrue?” she says.  “You come off perfectly interesting and nice!”

“I know,” I say, and hang up on her.  How could Ulla make me into a minor character with walk-on in Chapter VIII and one eleven-line speech at the very end, when it’s obvious the protagonist is me.

 All of which makes me wonder how Segal’s satire won and continues to win the praise of the literary elite. Her fictional characters are so encompassing that everyone – publishers, writers, critics - are  implicated.  Fortunately they respond with more generosity than her fictional folk and that means that the literary world can’t really be this bitchy …. or can it?

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Translated from Catalan by Mary Ann Newman
Heribert Juliá is a famous artist with an exhibition in his wife’s gallery to paint for but he’s leaving it to the last minute and he’s lost his mojo. His state of mind can be detected from the opening sequence in which he dreams of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and recognises himself as the besuited man at the bar. The cause of his painter’s block is never clearly identified but his disinterest is comprehensive. He has no enthusiasm for his art or his women (wife, Helena; mistress, Hildegarda; or casual conquest, Herundina). Not even remotely jealous when he discovers his wife Helena has a younger lover, a little curious perhaps but nothing more. As he slips into an ever deeper lethargy, reduced to counting the number of seconds he can remain underwater in the bath, his denial remains intact. Yet in a curious twist, it is a sculpture that precipitates the end of his career.

He is surplanted by Humbert Herrera, who takes over his wife, his career and eventually his mistress. It’s a deliberate surplanting by a younger artist, with more than enough fuel in his tank. He is hyper, pumped full of ideas for paintings and noting them down in a series of notebooks.

Totally black painting titled Love In the Dark. In the ENVIRONMENTS  book he writes: ” A boxing ring completely covered over with a white sheet   Audience in bleachers.  In the ring boxers fight unseen by audience.”  He opens another notebook, labeled CONCEPTS, and writes: “A dictionary with all the “obscene” entries crossed out and replaced with “proper” entries.  And vice-versa.  Two dictionaries, then.  Possible variations: rewriting of political, urbanistic, botanical, and psychological terminologies …”

And yet, imperceptably Humbert too begins to lose momentum.  In his desperation he speeds up, at one point whisking Heribert’s ex-mistress on a lightening round-the-world trip, a journey which begins after spending a long time examining Hopper’s Nighthawks at the Institute of Art in Chicago.  Humbert can’t stand the idea of being boxed in, entrapped.  He varies his art, not sticking to one style.  And yet ….    Is the implication that by taking over Heribert’s life, he is doomed to the same outcome?  Or is  Monzó simply depicting the circularity of the creative impulse?

To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure.  As with surrealist paintings, I’ll leave the interpretation to others, such as World Without Borders .   That Gasoline is a primarily a novel of ideas is evidenced by all the character names beginning with H, the mirrors and circles in the structure, repeated motifs, the inclusion of art theory and the many dreams.  The book is not meant to be read for plot alone.  Although I did and I really enjoyed the ride.  The tone is droll.  At times,  comic with Heribert dressing as a clown to follow his wife on her assignation with her lover.  At other times, poignant as  when Heribert switches on all the lights in his house to drown out the estrangement with his wife.  Yet there’s no doubting this is more than just the fantastical story of two artists and their love lifes, two superstars and the mundane men behind the image.  If I could get beyond the plot, even if I could understand that Word Without Borders review,  I’d be rating Gasoline as a masterpiece.  But it’s too clever for me.  Monzó must settle for a simple excellent.

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Peirene title #3, had a mountain to climb ….

Roll back 30 years.  University of London, Year 2 German translation class: “Well guys, this week’s translation exercise is only one sentence ….”.  Memories fade from this point -  I still bear the scars.  The sentence turned out to be 6  pages long and I think it came from Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain …. so the thought of a 117-page sentence has all kinds of associations.  On the negative side, sanitoria, tuberculosis ….. On the positive, clean mountain air  and, more to the point,  awe for a translator willing to take on such a challenge.

I won’t dwell on the grammatical error on the page one, (line 11 words 2 and 3 for those with a copy), because the translation recovers gracefully on page two and never wobbles again.  Cue a standing ovation for the translator, Jamie Bulloch.

Second problem – a hill, not a mountain - the Joycean associations of the title:  modernist, stream-of-consciousness.  Not  usually my cup of tea.  However,  the splitting  of the text into bite-size paragraphs allowed me to read without feeling pressured by a sentence of such inordinate length and there was no chance of even getting lost in it.  (I am now curious – is this an innovation of the translator or of the author – what does the original German look like, I wonder? ) 

And thankfully, this was less unfathomable Joycean stream-of-consciousness, more the internal monologue of an extremely sympathetic young woman as she walks from her lodgings to church.  Margherita is in Rome, she’s 8-months pregnant, and she’s conflicted.  On the one hand, she wants the war to end so that her husband will return to her from Africa where he is serving with the German army; on the other,  that end must come only with German victory.  Though in 1943 the tide is beginning to turn.  In addition her earlier indoctrination in the League of German Girls has not silenced her conscience entirely.   So her thoughts as she admires the beauty of  the city her husband loves, return again and again to the discrepancy of German behaviours and attitudes with Christian values.  How are the two to be reconciled, if they ever can be?  What is a girl to make of the paradox of the  Christian view “if the Führer places himself above God and God’s will, then we must not follow him blindly”  and the fact that “ GOD WITH US stood on the soldiers’ belt buckles, above an eagle on a swastika, God and Führer were united on every uniform”. 

Margherita’s monologue works on many levels.  On the personal, as an anxious young wife, and a caring mother-to-be.  As a tourist admiring the beauty of Rome for the first time. Missing home, yet naively believing herself to be safe from Allied bombers in the Italian capital.  Above all, as an insight into the thoughts of the average German of the time.  Like so many,  Margherita takes the path of least resistance. She suppresses her conscience and in other instances,  she chooses to remain ignorant.  Apropos Italian newspapers:

…she was happy that she was unable to read, any of it and did not have to, even in Germany she had not read the papers, it was better not to know too much, not to ask too much, not to say too much, one always heard bad news soon enough…

Indeed, at the end of her walk an approaching thunderstorm suggests that bad news is coming soon enough both to Margherita and to Rome.

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There nothing more intriguing than a mystery surrounding an old painting.    This is the portrait of a dead child, a beautiful little boy,  perhaps five years old; the face rested on a lace-decorated cushion, and the child held a white water lily in his small, pale hand.  In one dark corner of the child’s portrait, four letters written in red ink: C.P.A.S.  There is no mystery as to how the child died – he drowned – aquis submersus but what do the C and the P denote?

The secret is revealed with the discovery of an old manuscript written by the painter detailing his painful relationship with his patron’s daughter, Katherina.  What starts off as innocent friendship becomes a poignant story of mutual yet impossible love.  Class differences dictate that it can never be, yet Johannes persists in his hopes (delusions) until an unspeakable tragedy forces him to leave his love forever.

Storm’s skill as  a lyric poet is demonstrated with his use of  motifs and autumnal imagery to paint a mood – a Stimmung - of decay, menace and impending doom from the early days of Johannes’s and Katherina’s relationship.

“Come on, Johannes,” she said, “I’ll show you a bird’s nest in the hollow pear tree ….”

With that, she sprang forward; but before she came within twenty paces of the tree, I saw her suddenly stop.  “The goblin, the goblin!” she cried, and tossed her hands in the air as though startled.

This goblin turns out to be an owl but it is a motif  that recurs in subsequent episodes.  Something malevolent is stalking these two.  Once Katherina’s father and Johannes’s patron dies, that brooding malevolence becomes overt. Johannes experiences open hostility from Katherina’s brother, Wulf (it’s all in the name) and his sidekick Risch (who looks like a hawk). Ironically Wulf’s hounds chase Johannes into Katherina’s arms and there the seeds of the forthcoming tragedy are sown.

Only just escaping with his life, Johannes is forced to leave Katherina behind.  When he returns, he discovers that she has been married off.  A few years later, a chance commission enables him to rediscover her and her son.  At the moment they are reunited, the boy is playing by a pond.  The last thing the lovers hear before losing themselves in each other is his song,

Two angels cover me,
Two angels spread their wings,
And two more point the way
To heaven, to paradise.

I think this is the most precise and chilling foreshadowing I’ve ever read.  You know the rest – aquis submersus – C.P? - culpa patris (through the guilt of his father). 

Aquis Submersus is a powerful story of  love that could not beat the odds, an innocent victim and of  pain and guilt endured all for nothing!

Like smoke and dust to nothing gone,
So is every human son.

Human transience is a recurring theme in Storm’s work.  When faced with unbearable sorrow that can be a comfort.  Knowing that it will not last forever. Yet it’s tragic.  So much pain, so little significance.  While the child’s portrait endures, at the end of the story most of  the painter’s oeuvre has been disposed of and has vanished without trace.  Thank goodness, the same fate has not befallen Storm’s magnificent novellas.

Aquis Submersus is published in the NYRB edition of The Rider on The White Horse, an anthology of Storm’s short stories and novellas spanning his entire career.   I read this novella primarily because it is one of his best (though everything he wrote is good), as part of my November Novella Challenge and as my contribution to  NYRB Reading Week.

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Graham Urquhart and his  daughter take a trip to the recycle bins.  Instead of returning home, he steals a car and they take a drive around London.  As he deals with the various demands of his precocious daughter and ruminates on his past and his present, it becomes increasingly clear that his future and that of his family is in doubt.  Not only due to warfare on the domestic front.  Something apocalyptic is in the air.

What begins with a mundane domestic argument ends in  flight from a lion prowling in the middle of London Zoo.  (Read revenge of the plastic lion?)  Safety is found on an island in one of the animal enclosures …. or is it?  The key lies in a sinister childhood reminiscence,  located at the exact centre of the novella (nice touch). 

The ending is as ambiguous as the body of the novella.  Why are there no consequences to the car theft?  What exactly is the father thinking when instead of rushing to safety, he determinedly pursues the opposite course?  At what point does he / the action become unhinged?

The easy prose is belied by an insidious undercurrent.  On turning the final page, I discover I’m further out to sea than expected.  Not entirely lost, treading water.  It will take a second reading to get me back to shore.

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Hector, a psychiatrist, helps unhappy people in search of  happiness.  His first tactic is to ask them “what does happiness mean to you?”   He listens to them, helps them solve their own problems.  He gives them pills when that is not enough.  At the end of the day he goes home to his girlfriend, whom he loves but is not in love with.  One day he realises that he doesn’t know what happiness looks like, that he is, in fact, less than happy himself.  So he sets off on a quest.  His journey takes him to China, Africa, and the USA and on the way he has many exciting adventures and  learns many amazing things and attempts to capture them on paper. At the end of his journey he has defined 23 rules for happiness and so, on his return home, he lives happily ever after.

This first episode, in what is to become a series for Gallic Books,  is all very jolly – except where it’s wistful and sad - and told in a very simplistic way which keeps the smile on the reader’s face, while dealing with existential problems.  I certainly enjoyed the quirkiness for the first half.  Then the charm wore thin and I suspected the narrator was spmewhat condescending.  Either that or writing a book for young children – except no, some of the content is quite adult.  So I’m back to being a trifle irritated.  Why refer to locations by euphenism only?  Los Angeles, for example is this city that was as big as a small country, right near the sea.  That said the lessons on happiness  are actually quite profound and the book is worth reading for that alone.

I won’t quote Hector’s 23 lessons but my answer to his question makes an appearance in rule 19.  A summary of Hector’s findings is neatly captured in the following paragraph.  (Look away if you don’t want spoilers.)

A university professor looked at Hector’s list and told him that, thanks to a lot of  studies and calculations, they’d shown that if you compared yourself to others and didn’t find yourself wanting, if you had no money or health problems, if you had friends, a close-knit family, a job you liked, if you were religious and practised your religion, if you felt useful, if you went for a little stroll from time to time, and all of this in a country hat was run by not very bad people, where you were taken care of when things went wrong, your chances of being happy were greatly increased.

Hector did not go to Holland on his world trip but had he done so, and met the protagonist of Hansjörg Schertenleib’s novella, he may have spared himself a lot of bother.  

Happiness writes white is an oft-quoted writerly maxim and in this novella Schertenleib sets out to prove that it is not true.  With the epigraph, Fortuna Caeca Est (Fortune is blind – Cicero) Schertenleib introduces us to his 48-year old protagonist, a musician, married and still in love with his wife.  A modest man, who is always smiling. That, in itself, is set to grate on others.

What’s that guy smiling about?  Does he know something I don’t?  Why are things going better for him than for me?  A persn who’s always in a good mood is a challenge; someone who’s always smiling, a provocation. What could be worse than another person’s happiness?  Not that his unhappiness would make us happy, but we need it in order to bear our own.

Such are the risks Schertenleib runs.  Will his happy man irritate us in this way?  It transpires that he’s not happy, merely content.

Everybody in this world has doubts, everybody carps and bellyaches but the contented man is king.  He lives in peace, unlike the happy man.  He doesn’t have to prove anything, not to himself or anybody else.  He doesn’t feel called upon to convince anyone of anything, has nothing to fear.

But he does have moments of happiness.  It came and found him in the moments when he forgot about himself.  Moments when he is playing a gig, lost in music or time spent with his wife.  The first half of the story shows him in such.  The second half introduces moments of darkness.  His wife, who clearly reciprocates his devotion, suffers from depression and his teenage daughter behaves in – well – typical teenage fashion.  But the happy man takes it in his laid-back stride.

The technical problem Schertenleib had to solve is where to go with this modest tale of a contented chap.  What would make it stand out?  He solves this brilliantly with a  foreshadowing leitmotiv involving his protagonist’s fearof dogs. 

Schertenleib’s pen is sure, though obviously he never contemplated a translation into English. If he had, surely he have chosen a less confusing name for the happy man.  This Studer makes for difficult reading.

Hector and The Search for Happiness

A Happy Man 

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I left my heart in San Francisco …..

During my recent touristy wanderings, I found its hard to imagine that in 1847 San Francisco only had a population of 1,000.  But the Californian Gold Rush increased that to 25,000 within the year and the place hasn’t looked back since.    Not so, John Augustus Sutter, a Swiss emigrant who was busy building New Helvetia (a new Switzerland) in the vicinity, well on his way to becoming the world’s richest man.  The discovery of gold on his land ruined his life, proving yet again that fact is stranger than fiction.

Gold fictionalises the adventurous life, the rise and fall, of John Augustus Sutter and, thereby, the years immediately prior to and after California’s secession to the USA.  Cendrars ideally suited to writing an account of Sutter’s wandering and restless life leading a somewhat nomadic existence of his own.  An enjoyable informative tale, very sad at the end, Cendrars using his poetic licence to the full towards the end, piling on the tragedy with thick brushstrokes.  Well worth the couple of hours it took to read.  Amazingly it took the author over a decade to write it.

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