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Why Round 1?  While the official part of GLM VI is finished, the unofficial extension is about to begin.  As the European Literary Network are hosting a German month in December, I, for one, will use it for further German literature reading and reviewing (starting with the German-language literature on International Dublin Literary Award Longlist.) The contributions index at http://www.germanlitmonth.blogspot.com will, therefore, remain open for the whole of December.

This will give those who haven’t been able to review the books they have read in November opportunity to do so, should they so choose. I know there are a lot of unreviewed books out there.  Due to circumstances, there was much off-blog stress in November (sickness, Weltschmerz and other ills).  Hopefully things will pick up for those German lit lovers soon.

However a massive DANKE SCHÖN to the 36 bloggers, Amazon and Goodreads reviewers who have participated and contributed in the region of 110 high-quality reviews.  While some regulars were missing (and I did miss you), we were joined by 7 new-to-me bloggers (welcome all, and rest assured you are now all in my permanent feedly feed.) I hope you will all join us again next year (if not in December.)

GLM VI was a fully read-as-you-please event this year, and the choice of reading material was interesting.  Many, many classics – some of them gargantuan – were obviously plucked from the shelves, read and enjoyed at long last.  Result!, I say.

A couple of extremely brave participants began to work their way through Arno Schmidt’s Bottom’s Dream, and a couple more took  Goethe’s Italian Journey.  I would have joined this latter duo, had I not spent most of the month reviewing my own #gapyeartravels reading. I finally caught up with myself in Scotland with Fontane’s tour of 1858  – only to pack my bags and zoom off again.

imageDestination? That would be telling but I have taken some books set there with me.  All shall be revealed soon.  In the meantime, while I have only internet café access to wifi, please don’t forget to add further #germanlitmonth contributions to the master index at www.germanlitmonth.blogspot.co.uk.  (I stopped maintaining it on 28.11.2016.) And keep an eye on the European Literary Network – fabulous things will be happening there during December.

Having ignored Book Week Scotland for the last few years due to the clash with #germanlitmonth, I decided to challenge myself to find a book that satisfied the demands of both events.  Et voilà!

imageTranslated from German by Brian Battershaw

At the age of forty, twenty years before turning his pen to fiction, Theodor Fontane travelled to Scotland with his friend, Bernard von Lepel,  like many others enticed by the romantic historical novels and ballads of Sir Walter Scott and entranced by the figure of Mary, Queen of Scots. Their journey was a pilgrimage of sorts, and, I must admit,  well-planned.  I’m not entirely sure how long it lasted – matter of months I suspect – but they accomplished more that I have managed in 28 years of living here!

imageThe map on the right shows the route, and those in the know, will realise that it takes in  sites that are still major tourist attractions today.  Most of which I have visited too, and I found it interesting that the places Fontane describes are often as they appear today. (The places around them will have changed beyond all recognition and so I challenged myself to spot the details that Fontane didn’t mention: so no Nessie in Loch Ness (the story only began to spread in 1933), no McCaig’s tower in Oban (erected 1897) and curiously no mention of the bird colonies on the Isle of Staffa (and they must have been there when Fontane visited.) Neither did he visit a distillery, or if he did he didn’t tell us about it – perhaps the many temperamce preachers he met imfluenced him after all!

But enough of things, Fontane and Lepel didn’t see.  Here are some of the things that they did.

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Fontane’s travelogue is detailed amd multi-faceted with fastidious descriptions of places and people, historical anecdotes (lesser known as well as milestone events), translations of Scottish poems, retellings of Scottish legends, interspersed with personal experiences. These latter show the realities of travel in the mid-19th century.  Remind me never to take the end seat on the outside of a stage-coach.

passengers at the ends of each row … sat with only one cheek on the bench, so that the outer half of each individual dangled and swung to and fro together with hat-boxes and portmanteaus.  I need hardly say that such a minimum of travelling comfort would have been unbearable over a stretch of 75 miles, but for  the fact that at every stage the flanking passengers on the outside changed places so that their right and left halves, alternately rested at the last stage, constituted fresh reserves to put into  line.

The sketches  of his travelling companion Lepel complement the text.  3 of these are reproduced on the book jacket.  (From top to bottom: Loch Leven Castle, Isle of Staffa, Edinburgh) The book was intended to be a travel guide, and, for the most part, it could still serve that same purpose today (modes of transport excepted, of course.) I enjoyed Fontane’s keen observations and I learnt much about Scotland too.  A couple of  examples shall suffice.

1) Of Edinburgh and Stirling castle (Page 100)

Edinburgh Castle is like a recumbent lion while Stirling Castle resembles a sitting one.

2) Of the British Army (Page 102 doubtless a sly swipe at the Prussian Army and possibly not true today.)

We make a great mistake if we think of the British Army as a machine that removes the last vestiges of freedom and independence from the individual.

I will say, however, that there are very few references to the weather – from this I shall assume that the late summer of 1858 must have been a good one!

9 of the 27 chapters are devoted to Edinburgh.  Glasgow is lucky to get 9 lines! How so?  One look at the 300 foot-high factory chimneys of which a number were to be seen rising into heaven like pillars of petrified steam sufficed to make Fontane and Lepel rush for the  next train back to Edinburgh.

Fontane’s most scathing comments, however, are reserved for Abbotsford, Walter Scott’s self-designed ‘Romance in Stone and Mortar’.

There is a rhyming party game in which the participants write a line, then turn the paper down save for the last word, so that there can be no possible connection between what  the next man writes and what has been written before him.

Abbotsford is like that. It has been built for the sake of some forty or fifty catchwords.

No-one is more mortified than Fontane himself that he cannot adopt that tone of love and reverence to which one’s lips  have almost become accustomed when they utter Sir Walter’s name.  Lest we forget, visiting the places that Sir Walter Scott had written about was the primary reason  for Fontane’s journey.  Scott’s ballads were also the inspiration for Fontane’s early writing, who gave a number of his own ballads  Scottish settings. So to find his hero guilty of such poor taste was devastating. (Incidentally I disagree with Fontane here – I find Abbotsford quite charming and Scott’s novels unreadable.)   Regardless, the disappointing visit to Abbotsford, which lies on the Tweed,  is the final stage on this journey and signals a change of direction for Fontane.  When he finally publishes his debut, the historical novel Before the Storm in 1878, there is no trace of Scott’s romantic style and chivalric flourishes. He has become the realist writer on which his fame is based.

His love affair with Scotland had not ended, however.  Some 30 year later he wrote that this journey was one of the most beautiful in my life, at all events the most poetic,  more poetic than Switzerland, France, Italy and everything that I saw later on.

As a Sassenach in Scotland, I’d better not argue with that!!

imageTranslated from German by Samuel P Willcocks and Shaun Whiteside

Seagull Books have been turning their attention to German cult classics of late.  With a fair number in my TBR, I thought it was time to get started with the latter, an uncompleted East German novel written between 1959 and 1965, but never actually published in Germany until 2007.  The long, complicated story of how it came to be banned in the DDR is available in German on wikipedia.de.  The essence is simply that Bräunig omitted the sugar-coating demanded by the state resulting in a novel that depicted life in the early DDR 1949-1953 warts and all.  Not that Bräunig was unsympathetic to socialism.  He just wanted to show the difficulties of building a successful socialist state in a new country, decimated by war and with limited natural resources.

Bräunig is writing of the generation coming of age through the formative years of the DDR; the years during which ideology and pragmatism were often at loggerheads, when those who wished to be practical were often silenced by the idealists.  So it is that the vast majority of his cast are young people, late teens to early twenties, beginning their adult lives in the Wismut uranium mines or the paper factory at Bermsthal. Both settings familiar to the author – he had first-hand experience  of  working in both.

To rebuild the economy the DDR needed workers. To compete with America, Russia needed atomic weapons. Hence the strategic importance of the Wismut uranium mine.  Work there was strenuous and dangerous, but wages, in comparison to other trades, were good.  The novel begins as Christian Kleinschmidt and Peter Loose start their contracts at the mine.  The backgrounds of both couldn’t be more different.  Christian has just been denied university for 2 years because his father is an intellectual, and has been sent to the mine to condition his mind.  Peter Loose, his father a Nazi, has been thrown out of his home by his stepfather.  Down on his luck  and yet his downward spiral continues without letup. Christian, however, comes to terms with his fate, digs in (pun unintended) and makes a success of his time in the mines.

The two are mentored by Hermann Fischer, a communist by conviction, who provides a bridge to the paper factory, as his daughter,  Ruth, works there.  With the support of management, she becomes the model of the female socialist worker, becoming a machine leader, despite the opposition of the male workforce.  Her romance with the personnel manager flounders, however, when he begins to align with the more zealous idealogues.

The older generation are represented by the afore-mentioned Hermann Fischer, and the director of the paper factory,  Dr Jungandres, a denazified pragmatist, too old to seek a new future in the West, who is left to pick up the pieces when the rest of the management team, with the exception of Ruth’s boyfriend, abscond en masse!

I’m barely scratching the surface of the novel here, but you can begin to see why it would attract the ire of the East German authorities.  Bad things happen to the proletarian characters (Peter Loose, Hermann Fischer), those disloyal to the state get away with it (the absconders), those ambivalent to the socialist cause manage to get ahead (Christian Kleinschmidt, Dr Jungandres) and the newly converted comrades are shown to be unsympathetic. It’s not exactly the model of a state-approved socialist realist novel, is it?

imageFollowing the ban, Bräunig put the manuscript in a drawer and never worked on it again.  A pity because had he finished and honed it, this could have been a masterpiece.  As it stands, it is excellent providing insights into life in the early-DDR without being overly  dry or sensational.  There are some lovely literary touches also.  I loved the opening paragraphs in which Bräunig uses the wind blowing across Germany to sketch the historical context before bringing us right back the present and the first shift in the mine.  (Hopefully you can magnify the picture on the right to read this for yourself.)

There are some weaknesses – sub-plots that are tied up in a perfunctory manner, as though the author simply lost interest. The parallel stream set in West Germany which, I assume, is meant to show the superficiality of the easy lives there,  just diminishes the novel’s power, imo. Surprisingly, too, after 528 pages the ending feels rushed. But then, it would.  The novel’s unfinished.  I didn’t know that as I read, which is just as well, because had I known, I wouldn’t have read it.  And that would have been my loss.

To the victor the spoils they say, and in terms of historical reputation, Johannes Gutenberg was the conqueror.  Inventor of the first moveable type printing press and publisher of the first book – the Gutenberg Bible – or so established history would have me believe.  A visit to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, the final destination of my Germany 2016 mini-tour, and a reading of Alix Christie’s 2014 historical novel, Gutenberg’s Apprentice, opened my eyes to other possibilites.

Gutenberg didn’t invent moveable type.  That was invented about 4 centuries earlier in China by Bi Sheng using ceramic plates.  Moveable metal type was then developed in Korea.  What Gutenberg developed (because he had no prior knowledge of these Eastern systems) was a method of casting reusable metal type from a mould. The letters, together with his printing press, constituted the typographical system that proved to be the greatest invention since the wheel.  There has been nothing of similar importance until the invention of the internet.

imageThere I go, giving Gutenberg all the credit. Yet was this achievement really all his own, or should the roles of his financier, Johann Fust, and his apprentice Peter Schoeffer not be recognised also? They certainly are in Christie’s novel which is narrated by Schoeffer, looking back on the events of 1450-1455.

In 1450 Schoeffer is called back from his training as a calligrapher and engraver by his guardian, Johann Fust, to be apprenticed to Johannes Gutenberg.  Of course, he is resentful.  This new-fangled technology is going to destroy his career, and besides, mass production will never be able to able to produce books as beautiful as those made by hand.  Well events are to prove him wrong but not without a lot of blood, sweat and tears.  Christie takes us into the workshop and shows us the struggles that the team had: the technical struggles, the trial and error involved in finding the perfect alloy of lead, tin and antimony (a recipe that could not be improved upon for 500 years); the personal struggles resulting from the long hours; the political struggles that needed negotiation and the absolute secrecy that had to be maintained for 5 years to prevent the Archbishop of Mainz from confiscating the press; the personality clashes arising because Gutenberg was not the saint that we perhaps think he was ; and finally, the financial problems that contributed to the court case in which Gutenberg was forced to hand over his press to Fust.

Was that the real reason for the rift between the two partners? The facts are hard to establish as only a fragment of the court papers remains.  There is a school of thought  that Fust and Schoeffer (who testified against Gutenberg) had always planned to seize control of the press. This novel does not subscribe to that view and interprets events in an entirely different but thoroughly plausible way.  Although, with hindsight and with Schoeffer as apologist, that shouldn’t be so surprising.

Although, having no prior knowledge of these events, this took me completely by surprise and I found myself turning the pages ever faster.  It also ensured that I entered the Gutenberg Museum looking for evidence of Christie’s hypothesis. Naturally I found only the historical version of events – i.e the fragment from the court papers and only a couple of mentions of both Fust and Schoeffer.

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To beautiful books!

This saddened me as I’d grown quite fond of the latter, who, following his apprenticeship with Gutenberg, went on to publish the Mainz Psalter, generally recognised to be the most beautiful book ever published. (Note to self – must find one and visit.) Still I was gratified to learn later that Mainz hasn’t forgotten him entirely, and I can verify that the wheat beer that bears his name is as refreshing as it looks!

imageTranslated from German by Eva Bacon
Winner of the 2012 Klaus Michael Kühne Award
Winner of the 2012 Anna Seghers Award

I have no idea if all Russians love birch trees. I suspect not. The phase appears towards the end of the novel in a dialogue warning against generalisations of this kind. Which does not negate the fact that the issue of national identity is a prime concern of this debut novel.

Like the author, Masha, the main protagonist, was born in Azerbaijan and fled with her family to Germany to escape the ethnic conflict which broke out during the breakup of the USSR.  She grows up in Frankfurt.  As the novel begins, Masha is living with her  boyfriend, Elias. They have a good, if not, wholly perfect relationship.  Arguments are sparked when Elias questions Masha about her past – something terrible, which Masha is incapable of processing, happened during her escape from Azerbaijan.  She does not wish to think or speak of it.  Yet Elias’s death, following a serious footballing injury, opens up the scars which Masha has so carefully stitched together.

Scars not only relating to those traumatic events, but relating to her past love life – it seems Masha never got over her first love, Sami, who remains in the picture, flitting between Frankfurt and California, visas permitting,  where he is studying for his Ph.D.  Then there’s her friend, Cemalways there with a shoulder to cry on and she needs that, even tbough she is an accomplished lady.  Fluent in 5 languages, she has always “got on with it” and has not let her Jewish background either hinder or help her.  Yet following Elias’s death, emotionally adrift she decides to take a job in Israel, ostensibly to provide experience prior to becoming a translator in the UN.  Subconsciously, I think, it is an attempt to anchor herself in her Jewishness.

Whereas the racial identifiers in her life could be relegated to the background in Frankfurt (though not those of her Muslim friends), this is not the case in Israel, where the Palestinian question pervades every moment, every conversation. She meets Ori and Tal, brother and sister, he an Israeli soldier, she an activist on behalf of the Palestinians. Masha becomes involved with both, which leads her into dangerous emotional and political territories.

I confess I’m somewhat puzzled by this novel.  I understand it as a study of PTSD and grief.  Masha suffers from flashbacks and panic attacks, is frequently irrational and often dependent on her friends for support. I am bemused by her irresistibility to the opposite sex.  Her male friends are always at her beck and call and willing to travel across the world to her at the drop of an anguished phone call.  Would her vulnerability cause that?  As for the significance of all the racial and ethnic content, is the point that these boxes serve only to divide the human race?  Certainly Masha’s exploration of her Jewishness fails to provide her with a long term solution for her distress.

That said, the novel is quickly read and certainly well regarded in Bremen and Düsseldorf.  The libraries in those two cities nominated All Russians Love Birch Trees for the 2016  International Dublin Literary Prize, which is how it first came to my attention.  And the reason I’ve reviewed it today?  Because tomorrow sees the publication of the longlist for the 2017 prize.  Hopefully new German discoveries await.

Frankfurt Book Fair is book award season. It starts with the German Book Award on the fair’s eve,  followed by the Global Illustrators Award, German Cartoon Award, the Frankfurt Book Fair Award for best international Literary Adaptation amongst many others I can’t name right now.  The prize that was of most interest to me was the Beauty and The Book Award, given to the most beautiful book published in Germany.  The shortlist is voted for by the general public and displayed during the festival while judges do what judges do best.  Fair visitors get to have a say too when visiting the display though I’m not sure whether these are taken into account for the final award.

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I found this setup a little problematic when it came to casting my vote.  Kept at a distance, it was impossible to get up close and personal. How could I judge the most beautiful book without being able to assess paper/print quality, illustrations, font, overall aesthetic.  All I could do was vote for the most visually striking front-cover.  It has to be said that I wasn’t particularly struck by any,  and, as for the official winner, the cover was too busy to have any impact from a distance on me. You can see it on the left below.  On the right is Lizzy’s Winner.

Disappointed at not being able to do the tactile test I set off to determine the book I considered the most beautiful in the whole of the book fair.  (OK in the 60% of the fair I saw in my two days there.)  My judging criteria were as above (paper/print quality, illustrations, font, overall aesthetic) plus price – I was looking for a book that might one day grace my own bookshelves.  This final criterion ruled out the multitudes of magnificent medieval facsimiles and the Dutch art book that, price criterion excluded, would have taken my trophy.  I didn’t dare ask how much the book cost – the exhibition stand alone would have cost more than my former annual salary – but wouldn’t I love a room like this one!

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Glorious! But returning to the realms of budgetary reality, here is the shortlist in reverse order for Lizzy’s Frankfurt Book Fair Beauty and The Book Award.

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3) The Seagull Books 2016/2017 Catalogue which fellow blogger Melissa has so lovingly described. Not a catalogue to discard, but to keep, read, savour and, in my case, treasure, as I’m sure that this year’s edition is likely to be the only one I ever own (or carry back from the Frankfurt Book Fair. At 1.8 kg, it’s heavy.)

2) The embossed cloth-bound pocket-sized hardback essay collections from Notting Hill Editions.  In terms of description, I shall leave it to Notting Hill Editions own marketeers, because I’ve never read a better strapline: Memorable, collectible, akin to erotic brain-teasing toys for the tactile reader. No surprise then that two such beauties have made their way to my shelves already, and I fully expect this collection to grow.

1) You’ll see from my winner that black books with embossed gold really appeal to me, but the city travel guides from Define Fine are simply gorgeous.  Not sure if the gold-embossed black covers are leather but they look and feel real (though is it likely for a cover price of €25?).  The contents, printed entirely on high-quality glossy paper, are unlike any other travel guide I have read, and are based on, from what I understand, the personal experiences of the husband and wife company onwers.  The exquisite photographs are also their own.  There’s an interesting history of the company here as well as an instagram to drool over here.  I had to content myself with a bookmark to bring home with me as the Divine Define Fine City Guide to Barcelona has yet to be published. I’m waiting …..

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Your wish is granted!

For two reasons:

1) It has become a tradition that the unofficial end date is the day on which I publish the annual author index. This year that will be after Xmas as I will have only sporadic internet access during December.

More importantly

image2) The European Literature Network (ELN) is having a German December. Expect more German-language literature reviews, interviews and other such goodies over on their site. They’d also like #germanlitmonth readers to take part. So if you would like to record a 30-second video review of your favourite piece of German-language fiction, please do so.

The review can be based on the original German work or a translation, as long as you have a copy of the book to wave in front of the camera. It can be a novel, a short story collection, a volume of poetry or a play – as long as it’s fiction. Please include the title (ideally in English and in German), the author, what it’s about and why you love it.

Your video can be as straightforward or creative as you wish.  Try these two examples for size.

Straightforward:

Creative:

Let me know in comments by 25.11, if you’re likely to participate and I’ll send you details of how to send your finished video to ELN.