Archive for the ‘review’ Category

Translated by Susan Bernofsky
Winner of the 2014 Hans Fallada Prize

Published in German in 2012, I find it fascinating to think that Erpenbeck must have been writing this at the same time as Kate Atkinson was writing Life after Life. Both novels explore the what ifs: what if that oftentimes insignificant moment/decision had played differently?  How would things have panned out? Both novels start with the death of a baby. in Atkinson’s case the child dies at birth because the doctor cannot make it through a snow storm. In Erpenbeck’s case a child dies at 8 months because the mother doesn’t know that a handful of snow rubbed into the chest would have resusitated her. Girl child and snow in both cases. Uncanny?

The handful of snow plays its part in the alternate history, and so the child survives to migrate from Galicia to face the trials of the First World War in Vienna. Chance takes her one day down the wrong road (in a literal sense) to her death. An intermezzo takes her down an different road to marriage and another emigration, this time to Russia and the most powerful section of the novel, in which she, a communist and a half-Jew, having fled the Nazis, seeks to save herself from the Stalinist purges.

At an earlier point she muses “How much better it would be … if the world were ruled by chance, not by a god”. The intermezzo in which she escapes from Stalin constitute the most chilling pages of the book – the arbitrariness of chance and the ruthlessness of fate were never more powerfully underscored.

Two further deaths await her but like Ursula, in Atkinson’s novel, other paths enable her to successfully negotiate the 20th century.  The fact remains though that Frau Hoffmann finally does reach the end of her days. There’s no side-stepping that issue.  Nor the question: did it make any difference at all that the first death wasn’t real?

I won’t pretend to understand the metaphysical questions at the heart of this novel.  I will say that, although Erpenbeck is a stylist, she is thankfully becoming more accessible. Though her refusal to name her characters is lamentable. (As in Visitation, so here.) Is this to highlight the universality of experience or to preserve a distance between reader and narrative, maintaining the intellectuality of her writing? Even when her protagonist is named, she is addressed formally as Frau Hoffmann.  It’s not possible to connect with her as with Atkinson’s Ursula. Nevertheless the quality and detail of her prose – and Bernofsky’s translation – at times challenging, is extremely satisfying.

Erpenbeck remains on my completist reading list.


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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.)

  © Lizzy’s Literary Life 2014

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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 …. 



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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?

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You may remember, back in the day of my very first meet the translator interview, I tried to persuade Sally-Ann Spencer to translate Uwe Tellkamp’s German Book Prize winning behemoth, Der Turm, an examination of the last years of the German Democratic Republic.  Two years later and the English translation has actually appeared!  Published today, in fact.  (Allen Lane, ISBN 978-0241004579). Now as chance and Monica Cantieni’s event in Glasgow would have it, the translator, Mike Mitchell, found himself in the same room as Lizzy, who, shall we say, pounced! (I’m not one to miss an exclusive.) Here are the results.  My review of the book will follow on Sunday, 9.11.2014, the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall.

How did you become a literary translator?
Literature was one of my main interests at school and I enjoyed translating from then onwards (just for myself). I taught German at university for 30 years; one attempt to get a book translated in the early 70s brought such a discouraging response from John Calder that I and a colleague, who was to edit it, just dropped it. However, by chance a US professor I’d written articles and a couple of chapters for decided to set up a publishing house for Austrian literature, culture etc and asked if I’d like to do a translation for them (Ariadne). I jumped at the chance; just as that appeared I saw the Dedalus series in the university bookshop and one of my favourite postwar novels seemed to fit; it did, but not only that, they were actually looking for a translator from German! In 1995 there was the opportunity of early retirement; I grabbed it and have worked as a translator ever since. As I’ve since learnt, especially when I was editor of Dedalus’s Europena series, I was incredibly lucky; there are so many people out there who’d like to be translators

“The Tower” is a 1000+ page literary extravanga of a novel. What persuaded you to take it on?
I was commissioned to do it — as a freelancer one is hesitant to refuse commissions but, anyway, it sounded like a challenge and I like that.

How did you manage to fit it into your schedule? How how many hours did you spend on it? (It took me six weeks just to read your translation!)  Are you entirely happy with the published product or are there pieces you’d like to finesse?
When I’m asked to do something, I work out how long it’s likely to take from past experience, add a few months so I don’t put myself under pressure and give the publisher a date. I think I’m happy with the final result — though I’m sure I could find something I’d change if I were to read it with a fine tooth comb. I couldn’t say how many hours it took now.

There are many literary references in the Tower, perhaps most obviously to Thomas Mann in the opening family gathering and the long, complex sentences. You have chosen to retain these. It’s quite fashionable these days in English translation to break long German sentences down into shorter English structures. Why did you chose not to take this approach?
I did break them down slightly but I felt that Tellkamp was aiming at a Mann reference in the opening section and it seemed appropriate to the kind of social group he’s portraying as the ‘Tower-dwellers’.

Did you collaborate with the author on the translation?
I sent him questions — some in particular about those early complex sentences — another reason for trying to retain them in English was the parallel between those sentence structures and aspects of the architecture, furnishings of the ‘Tower’ district he’s describing.

Do you have a favourite section in the Tower? 
I did really enjoy the section about the East Germans at the Leipzig Book Fair.  It’s supposed to be written by Meno, who’s a publisher’s editor and a writer, but he trained as a zoologist and he describes the East Germans attending the Book Fair as giant insects about to descend on the Western stands like a plague of locusts; then the way it’s planned like a military exercise and the special clothing Barbara makes, with pockets the exact size to conceal the paperbacks of the Western publishers they like; I found it a brilliant and funny little sketch but it’s also an indirect way of showing the East Germans’ hunger for anything from the West, especially books and that kind of thing.

Another episode that is amusing in itself but also shows the togetherness there could be in East Germany is the scene in the communal bath house.

You’ve translated well over 60 works in all genres from German to English. Which of these gave you the most pleasure? (Am hoping you’ll mention my favourite – The Great Bagarozy)

I did really enjoy Bagarozy — I was disappointed it didn’t make a greater impact here. Among my favourites it the first one I recommended to Dedalus: Rosendorfer’s Architect of Ruins. Another more recent one if Roblès’ Where Tigers are at Home. I also particularly enjoyed translating a long poem by Helmut Krausser: ‘The Denotation of Babel'; I never managed to get the whole thing published, though I think someone put it on the web after it was commended for the Stephen Spender prize.

You can take 3 works of German(-language) literature with you to the proverbial desert island. Which would they be and why?

I suspect it would be something like Goethe’s poetry; a favourite book is likely to pall but you can read poetry again and again and get different things out of it. (That’s a cop-out really) (Editor – not really.  Stefan Tobler chose to do this too. Must be something in it.  :) )

You may take 1 more work to translate. Which would it be and why?

Again, that’s awkward to answer. One book I’ve tried to interest publishers in (so far without success; if I’m resting, as actors say, I’ll translate it and publish it myself) is Carl Amery’s fantasy about a Papal attempt to put the Catholic Stuarts back on the British throne: Das Königsprojekt. It would have been nice to do it for the Scottish referendum debate, but I had too much on to make much progress. As you’ll see, my tastes are more for the fantastic than for earnest realism.


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Shortlisted for the 2011 Swiss Book Prize

Translated by Donal McLaughlin

At the heart of this quirky and good-natured novel is a serious political issue – that of immigration to Switzerland. Reading the wikipedia page on the subject, there appears to have been one referendum after the next in recent years, with the most recent narrowly voting for limitations and quotas on the numbers of immigrants from the European Union. The book is set in 1970, the year the Swiss narrowly rejected the popular initiative against foreign infiltration.

Enter a 5-year old narrator, who is in the process of being adopted. She’s not Swiss; she doesn’t even talk German. So not only does she have to grapple with new – and often very confusing circumstances – she doesn’t have the words to explain the intricacies of the situations she encounters. My father bought me from the council for 365 francs is her opening gambit, which is a little confusing until the context of the adoption asserts itself.

She is in every sense of the word the Grünschnabel (greenhorn or beginner) of the Swiss title, endearingly translated whippersnapper in the text by McLaughlin. She learns the new language by collecting and sorting German words into matchboxes. She has a strained relationship with her adoptive parents, particularly with her highly-strung mother, who is always swallowing her hellish misery pills. Happily she bonds well with her adoptive grandfather, Tat, the secret main character of the novel according to the author. Her world is populated by many immigrants, whose livelihoods are uncertain due to their temporary work permits. Her confidant is Snow White – a cuddly white rabbit.

Whippersnapper’s naivety injects comedy in the most unexpected places. Where else would you get political commentary like this?

The landlord sympathised with the foreigners …… He’d nothing against them wanting to increase in size.

“A pleasure shared is twice as great,” he said.

The foreigners understood him.

They called Eli (a Spanish bricklayer), and he erected a wall, made two flats out of one. Following which the landlord’s pleasure was twice as great and the foreigners’ was shared.

Monica Cantieni and Donal McLaughlin at the CCA, Glasgow 16.09.14

In other places the comedy is Kafkaesque. Tat is a double leg amputee, who, by a quirk of fate, has ended up with two artificial right legs. The insurance company has two legs on file, and so refuses to give Tat a third. Even the child can see the stupidity in this.

Underneath, however, are the serious issues. A child of one of the immigrant family friends is forced to live in a wardrobe, because she is not permitted to stay on her father’s permit. Whippersnapper must come to terms with life and death. It is obvious from the start that her beloved grandfather is fragile, on a downhill trajectory. There’s a funeral taking place as she arrives at her new home, resulting in an early philosophical conversation with her adoptive father about death. (Interestingly this was the first scene written, following the funeral of the author’s friend). The novel ends with her grandfather’s wake. The question to be answered is, did the man who together with Whippersnapper, created the eponymous Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons (or good arguments and reasonings), have enough time to ensure that his granddaughter could find her place in this strange new world without him?


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Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. …
and I’m wondering why?

Not that this is a bad novel, far from it.  But I wouldn’t put it on the same pedestal as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.  What’s the problem?  It is far too long.  OK, at 771 pages, it is 300 pages shorter than that other Pulitzer prize winner, Gone With The Wind but GWTW has no implausible plot-twists and pages and pages of repetitive alcohol and drug binges.

Where was the editor?  AWOL with Theo’s passport, I suspect.  A missed opportunity.  A good novel could have been turned into a great one with a bit more control and a lot less verbiage.

Now that that’s off my chest, let’s focus on the good points.

The first section which sets up the novel is superb.  Thereafter, there’s a gradual downhill gradient with distinct plateaux along the way, which give the feeling of reading for ages and never getting anywhere plot-wise.  That said I read the whole in just over a week, which means it’s very readable.  Nor am I’m employing that word as an insult.

The character portrait of motherless Theo, suffering from survivor guilt and post-traumatic stress syndrome, getting into the wrong company and doing his best to squander the opportunities that are handed him, makes me both anxious and furious. Because for every louse in his life (his father, Boris), there is a benefactor (Mrs Barbour, Hobie).  Unfortunately those mind-altering substances won’t loosen their grip and Theo’s mind is incapable of accepting the good things when they come his way.

His character had been indelibly marked by the tragedy of his mother’s death and Fabritius’s painting of  The Goldfinch which came into his hands at the same time.  Indeed his very identity is bound up with that painting, which, because he effectively stole it from a bombed-out museum, he must keep hidden.

How could I have believed myself a better person, a wiser person, a more elevated and valuable and worthy-of-living person on the basis of my secret uptown? Yet I had.  The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary.  it was support and vindication, it was sustenance and sum.  It was the keystone that held the whole cathedral up.

Suffice to say, when he discovers its loss, he loses the plot and thus begins a downward spiral an adventure that descends into the preposterous.  Tartt has to commit murder to get him out of the fix he lands himself in – in more ways than one.

The point is that Theo believes he is pursued by bad luck and, like the Goldfinch chained to its perch, he cannot fly unfettered.  Ironically it’s not until he resolves the conundrum of returning the painting that his luck changes – massively. fortuitously and far too conveniently for me …

… yet it is hard to see how Theo can reach the point of redemption without that startling denouement.   It’s Dickensian, that’s what.  As indeed are the echoes of Great Expectations and the characters, the good, the bad and the ugly.  Not that they are grotesques  (well, perhaps Lucius Reeve and Boris).  The main characters are finely drawn and nuanced. Indeed this and the strong evocation of place (New York, The Nevada Desert, Amsterdam) are the novel’s stronger points.

And Theo’s not all bad.  He has a generous heart – perhaps he deserves a shot at redemption after all?


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