Archive for the ‘german literature’ Category


Translated from German by Leila Vennewitz

Subtitled Or Something to Do with Books

It was the subtitle that reeled me in.  I dived in expecting this to be full of nostalgia for the books that influenced the 1972 Nobel Laureate. There is some of that but it is not the main focus. Set in the years 1933 -1937, this is a memoir of Böll’s formative schooldays which just happened to coincide with the years in which the Nazis consolidated their powerbase.  So fond school memories, with which Böll begins most chapters, are soon related to the background. There are bigger isues to deal with.

Written some 45 years after the events, Böll is careful not to let hindsight impinge on the story.  His aim is to describe the boy he was and the family he belonged to together with the impact that events had on their lives and the city they lived in (Cologne). The book ends very specifically on February 6, 1937, the day Böll graduated from high school, but he makes no other claims to historical accuracy with regard to the chronology of events. As he says, all his notes were destroyed during the war.

Böll’s family was Catholic with bohemian leanings and a natural aversion to Nazism. Outsiders though not belonging to any persecuted minority. They did not join the Party, did not attend rallies and, for a while at least, did not have to compromise. At school Böll was bored and, often played truant with his mother’s collusion, bicycling through the Rhine valley, often with a girl for company. When he did attend school, he studied Mein Kampf in great detail …

Our teacher, Mr Schmitz, a man of penetrating, witty, dry irony … used the hallowed text of Adolf Hitler the writer to demonstrate the importance of concise expression, known also as brevity. This meant that we had to take four or five pages from Mein Kampf and reduce them to two.

Thus, says Böll, not entirely tongue in cheek, I can thank Adolf Hitler the writer for some qualification to be a publisher’s reader and a liking for brevity.

If it hadn’t been for the Nazis, these would have been an idyllic few years. But the face of the German world was changing and Böll’s memoir conveys the shock of the general populace by events in 1933 such as the burning of the Reichstag, the signing of the Concordat (described by Böll as a body-blow) and the execution of alleged Communist conspirators in Cologne. Still the hope that Hitler wouldn’t last long died on June 1934 with the Röhm putsch. It was the dawn of the eternity of Nazism.

As the Nazi grip tightened, and the family finances deteriorated because Böll’s tradesman father couldn’t obtain any contracts, it was decided that material survival took priority over political survival, and that one member of the family had to join a Nazi organisation. His elder brother, Alois, was elected by the family council. Alois never really forgave them for it, even though in those early National Socialist years there were way of bribing your way out of the obligatory duties

The family’s biggest worry though was what’s to become of the boy? They all knew that Hitler meant war. Böll talks about his generation being schooled for death, the greatest honour being to die for the Fatherland. Which profession would offer a safety blanket? The priesthood? But Böll had discovered the opposite sex and was not willing. So with membership of the Nazi Labour Front an inevitability, Böll decided to do something with books and obtained an apprenticeship in a quiet, non-Nazi bookstore.

As the memoir ends, the illusion of remaining an outsider prevails. Böll has dodged a metaphorical bullet. As history shows, he wouldn’t be so lucky dodging the real ones which began to fly just two years later.


December 2017 marks the centenary of Böll’s birth, so to commemorate the event, I intend to work my way through Melville House Publishing’s Essential Böll Series.  I started with the memoir to have a biographical reference point when (re-)reading his fiction.

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Translated from German by Anthea Bell

I’ve been rationing myself so as not to come to the end of the Pushkin Classic editions of Zweig’s novellas, but I reckon that the week of the 75th anniversary of his suicide is as fine a week as any to do so.  I also wanted to evaluate this volume, published in 2011, against the critique that Seksik has Zweig level against himself in The Last Days.

In the end, they were all invariably similar to one another: short stories about single-minded passions, irrepressible loves and macabre consequences … His work lit a series of conflagrations in the hearts of his heroes … The characters would attempt to resist their passions and once they relented and gave into them, their guilty consciences prompted them either to turn their backs on life or to lapse into madness.

Actually this is Zweig repeating the accusations of his critics and fellow writers (Klaus Mann and Ernst Weiss are specifically named)  which they used to argue his status as a minor writer.  And yes, they have a case, but those very same qualities are what make Zweig’s novellas compulsive reading for me and numerous others.  Still what about the four novellas in The Governess and Other Stories?

The Miracles of Life (1903), written at the age of 21, clearly demonstrates that the interest in history, that resulted in multiple biographies throughout Zweig’s career, began early. It is set Antwerp in 1566, the year of rebellion and rioting against Spanish rule, which forms the background.  Esther, a Jewish girl previously rescued from a pogrom by a kind-hearted soldier, becomes the subject of a religious painting destined to hang in a Catholic church. A number of passions are evident here: that of the artist for getting his painting  just right; that of both artist and subject for their respective religions (he is Christian, who believes his task is to convert the girl, while she, although having lost all connections to her own religious community, remains passionately attached to the Jewish faith); and finally, the passion that proves fatal, that of the girl for the child, who is the Saviour to her Madonna in the painting. This is the longest and most complex of the stories in this volume, full of atmospheric  historical detail and dramatic irony.  While the painter couldn’t convert the girl, he nevertheless unsuspectingly inflames her with a love for the child. This leads directly to the girl’s death.  For the Jewess, who has rejected the Christian faith,  dies defending a Catholic icon in the aforementioned riots. It’s also fascinating to see the conflict between Christian and Jew taking centre stage, particularly as Zweig never was an observant Jew.

The Governess (1907) is the usual tale of a governess who falls from grace, following her seduction by a member of the famiily she is working for.  Or rather it would be the usual tale except that the episode is described from the uncomprehending viewpoints of her two charges, aged 12 and 13. Their naivety is charming, and it lends a bittersweet charm to their narrative, because, of course, the reader knows where this is heading. That the girls have absolutely no clue of what has happened at that age is incomprehensible to us today, but this is Vienna in the early 20th century, and the disgrace is the governesses’s own. Of course, she must pay the penalty.

Downfall of the Heart (1927) moves us beyond the First World War, when the younger generation had rejected the moral values at play in The Governess. The problem here is that old man Salomonsohn is stuck in the past. The discovery that his daughter is sleeping with one of the three men flirting with her on a family holiday is as a blow to the heart, triggering an obsessive reaction that sees him increasingly withdraw from both wife and daughter.  This is the story that best fits the monomaniacal template of the critique above.  Yet not quite. I usually feel sympathy for the victims of their passions. I felt none for maudling old Salomonsohn.

If I were to describe Did He Do It? (1935-1940) in one word, it would be playful, and that even though it incorporates tragedy and a monomaniacal murderer!  Written sometime during the years Zweig spent in exile in the UK, this is both his homage to Bath, where he spent those happy years, and to the classic British murder mystery.  Obviously I can’t say too much about this, particularly as the ending is left open to interpretation, but there’s no doubt in my mind.  He did do it!

There’s no denying it – all these novellas fit the emotional template quoted above for tragedy is to be found in all walks of life – from the working classes to high society. After all,  human nature is the same regardless of station in life.  Yet Zweig rings the changes with historical settings (from the beginning of the Reformation to the roaring twenties and beyond) and narrative point-of-view (naïve young children, chatty middle-aged women, kindly or otherwise old men). Atmosphere and tone always fit.

Zweig was better writer than his critics have and still do suggest, and for me, reading him is much more enjoyable than reading many an acclaimed masterpiece. Which would explain why Zweig has more shelfspace than any other author in my personal library.


Stage 5 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press project, this post is part of the Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad.

Next stop: Italy

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It was love at first sight – truly.

The book stood out from the others on the bookshop shelf in the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar.


The word play in the title made me laugh (you only need to change one letter (s to b) in the German to get to the saying live and let live).  The jacket illustration made me laugh as well. I knew I could recreate it.  And so I did, once I had reclaimed my reading sofa from the unruly TBR.


But the clincher was when I flicked through and discovered the book-culling poem by Eugen Roth.  What other treasures was I going to discover?

As it turned out a great many because Daniel Kampa’s selection of prose and poetry about the joys and frustrations of readers, writers, booksellers and critics is inspired.   The renowned Nikolaus Heidelbach has also illustrated the book, and those illustrations are as quirky as some of the pieces.  Sometimes they match the text, oftentimes they do not. But they do form a couples of series: the first of human readers,  the second the  imaginary animal reader.  Heidelback obviously has a high opinion of the cat’s intelligence, whilst he feels the canine to be a less sophisticated beast. (Grrrr.)


The reading itself consists of 51 pieces of prose and poetry from authors around the world.  Old favourites (Böll, Chekhov, Zweig) plus many, many more I had not read  before.  So in addition to introducing me to German authors (Mascha Kaleko, Joachim Ringelnatz,  Eugen Roth, Kurt Tucholsky)  I have also read the following for the first time: Chilean Pablo Neruda’s Ode to the Book (II), Czech Jaroslav Hasek being very mischievous at a book group, French Marcel Proust spending a day reading and Italian Italo Calvino putting his protagonist reader through hell on a beach!  The English-speaking literary world is also represented with pieces from Nathanael Hawthorne, A A Milne, Flann O’Brien, Henry David Thoreau.

As I was reading, I kept wishing that the book was in English, so that I could quote extensively here.  As it is, I’ve found two of my favourite pieces online: A A Milne on his library, which has made me less worried about the shall-we-call it random nature of my book piles; and Flann O’Brien’s satirical piece on  book-handling services for the rich, whose pristine libraries need to look a little more used.

I was reading the book throughout January. A slower pace than is usual for me, not because of the German – there was only one piece that made my brain ache – Karl Schimper’s poem Ein Leser.  Rather I kept taking diversions.  So an extract from Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop sent me to the shelves to read the whole thing as well as the prequel Parnassus on Wheels. Then last night I made a beeline for Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, because, after the piece noted above, I needed another fix.

Lesen und Lesen Lassen is a 5-star delight from the first page to the last. (In fact, that pithy little 4-line epigram from Goethe on the final page deserves 6 stars!) I expect I shall refer to this anthology time and again – particularly when I need a pick-me-up.  Plus there are the reading trails it has opened up.  In addition to those already taken, I used January’s purchase allowance on 2 books that I can no longer live without: Eugen Roth’s Menschlich/Merely Human and Flann O’Brien’s Best of Myles.

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imageTranslated from German by Anthea Bell

Nominated for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award by the Salzburg City Library

*** Review contains mild spoilers ***

Eight years of married bliss are brought to an abrupt halt when Brünhilde Blum’s husband is killed in a hit and run. Mark was a policeman, working off-the-record on a case involving allegations of kidnap and torture of illegal refugees.  The woman, Dunya, making these claims had been written off as a fantasist by the police force, yet Mark felt otherwise.  Following his death, Blum listens to the recorded conversations between Mark and Dunya and becomes convinced that his death was not accidental.

She sets off to discover the identity of those Dunya knows only as the photographer, the priest, the huntsman, the cook and the clown to exact revenge, and the reader has no doubts whatsoever that she will be succeed. Because Blum is a dormant psychopath, having already avenged her tormented childhood on her adoptive parents – this episode forms the prologue.  She has the guts, the knowledge, and the wherewithall.

An undertaker,  there’s not much Blum doesn’t know about body disposal, so hiding the evidence isn’t a problem.  Nor is dispatching her prey, once located.  Her biggest problem is the father of the photographer, who suspects something malign has happened to his boy when he disappears without trace.  This thread adds the hunter is being hunted frisson to proceedings, because the police don’t have a clue that a serial killer is at large.

And yet Blum is a loving mother, a caring daughter-in-law and a genuinely grief-stricken wife. Cozy domestic scenes, interspersed throughout the book, are to be enjoyed, because the rest is brutal: the story of Blum’s childhood, that of the refugees, the revenge killings, the graphic and grisly dismembering of the corpses.  Plus an extra eek factor, which Blum reserves for the final scumbag.  This is not a novel for the faint-hearted.

I hesitate to say I enjoyed this, although I raced through it.  I certainly wanted justice to be done, but then I question whether I should have been empathising with such a bloodythirsty psychopath.  Or even with her nice-guy-but-dead-hubby.  Because there’s a secret revealed in the epilogue that shows him not to have been as honourable as we are led to believe ….

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Eugen Roth’s poem Bücher (Books) tells how books, separated from their pals on the shelves, stored in bags, ready to vacate the premises work on the mind of their potentially-soon-to-be-ex ….. who takes another look, and then for reasons of beauty or content (I remember now why I wanted to read you) returns them one by one to the shelves, rejoicing in the act of self-sabotage.

The object lesson for book cullers is to remove the bags from the premises immediately before, as in the current case in point, 75 become 65 for all the reasons Roth mentions in his poem.  What Roth didn’t have to contend with, however, is the world of book blogging and reviews which then result in further search and rescue missions.  All I can say is that the remaining 64 (books not bags) are leaving the premises today before the number reduces even further.

Caroline, I’ve said it before, you are such a bad influence! 😂😂😂 It was your review of The Devotion of Suspect X what did it!  This poem is for you.

(Apologies to non-German readers, I can’t find an English translation, though Google Translate will give you a hazy idea of meaning, if you care to try it.)

Eugen Roth: Bücher

Ein Mensch, von Büchern hart bedrängt,
An die er lang sein Herz gehängt,
Beschließt voll Tatkraft, sich zu wehren,
Eh sie kaninchenhaft sich mehren.
Sogleich, aufs äußerste ergrimmt,
Er ganze Reihn von Schmökern nimmt
Und wirft sie wüst auf einen Haufen,
Sie unbarmherzig zu verkaufen.
Der Haufen liegt, so wie er lag,
Am ersten, zweiten, dritten Tag.
Der Mensch beäugt ihn ungerührt
Und ist dann plötzlich doch verführt,
Noch einmal hinzusehn genauer –
Sieh da, der schöne Schopenhauer…
Und schlägt ihn auf und liest und liest,
Und merkt nicht, wie die Zeit verfließt…
Beschämt hat er nach Mitternacht
Ihn auf den alten Platz gebracht.
Dorthin stellt er auch eigenhändig
Den Herder, achtundzwanzigbändig.
E.T.A. Hoffmanns Neu-Entdeckung
Schützt diesen auch vor Zwangs-Vollstreckung.
Kurzum, ein Schmöker nach dem andern
Darf wieder auf die Bretter wandern.
Der Mensch, der so mit halben Taten
Beinah schon hätt den Geist verraten,
Ist nun getröstet und erheitert,
Daß die Entrümpelung gescheitert.



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I’m still working on my 2017 reading plans. Not that I’m short of ideas and ambitions,  I’m just struggling to come up with something reasonable! However, there is one given, I’ll be working through this list of German literature reviewed by @JudithVonberg on Youtube during the European Literature Network’s German month in December. (To find the video, search the European Literary Network channel and the date of the video corresponds to the number below.)

Links are to my written reviews. Asterisks indicate that I’ve read but not reviewed the book. Italicised titles are in my TBR (some of them have been for years). These will be given priority during 2017. As of today, the count stands at 8 read, 6 reviewed, 12 in the TBR.

1 Austerlitz – W G Sebald
2 Collected Short Stories – Franz Kafka
3 Back to Back – Julia Franck
4 Babylon Berlin – Volker Kutscher
5 The Sorrows of Young Werther – J W von Goethe
6 The Reader – Bernhard Schlink*
7 Chess – Stefan Zweig*
8 The Swimmer – Zsusza Bank
9 The Hunger Angel – Herta Müller
10 All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque
11 The Other Child – Charlotte Link
12 Baba Dunja’s Lost Love – Alina Bronsky
13 The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge – Rainer Maria Rilke
14 Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada
15 Where Love Begins – Judith Hermann
16 Effi Briest – Theodor Fontane
17 Heroes Like Us – Thomas Brüssig
18 Diary of A Lost Girl – Margarethe Böhme
19 Malina – Ingeborg Bachmann
20 The Bridge of the Golden Horn – Emine Sevgi Özdamar
21 The Robber – Robert Walser
22 A Sense of the Beginning – Norbert Gstrein
23 Memoirs of a Polar Bear – Yoko Tawada
24 The Devil’s Elixirs – E T A Hoffmann
25 Holy Night – Karl May
26 What Remains – Christa Wolf
27 Berlin Blues – Sven Regener
28 Twelve Grams of Happiness – Feridun Zaimoglu
29 The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum – Heinrich Böll
30 My Century – Günter Grass
31 Gehen, Ging, Gegangen – Jenny Erpenbeck (Translation forthcoming 2017)

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imageTranslated from German by Simon Pare.

Nominated for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award by libraries in Hungary and USA

It’s not often that I allow my dislike of a main character to interfere with my enjoyment of a novel, but there’s always an exception that proves the rule.  So here we go. I took a strong dislike to Manon and not even her tragic fate redeemed her.  It proved an insurmountable hurdle for a novel that pivots on the love of its main protagonist for this woman.  But let me start at the beginning.

NOTE: This review will contain mild spoilers, so reader beware! 

Jean Perdu is the owner of the little Paris bookshop in question, a book barge.  Actually it’s not a bookshop; it’s a literary apothecary, because Perdu will not sell a book to a customer unless it is right for that person, and, he can,  just by looking at a person, prescribe the correct bookish medicine. Like many doctors, however, he’s not good at self-medication. His problem? His lover of five years, the afore-mentioned Manon, left him suddenly without a word.  Some months after her disappearance, she sent a letter, which Perdu threw into a drawer and never opened.  For the next 21 years, Jean Perdu is a lost soul, locked away emotionally and cut-off from the joys of life.

The arrival of the recently divorced Catherine into his apartment block leads to the letter resurfacing and his eventually reading it.  What he reads devastates him further. The letter is a plea from Manon to her lover to come to her – she is dying.

And so 21 years too late, he unmoors his boat and sets off for Provence to visit Manon’s grave and ask for redemption.  The complication is that he is going to have to visit her husband, Luc, who knew of Perdu’s existence, and married her nevertheless.   Both men were seemingly accepting that one man was not enough for the love of their respective lives.  (Really? Not in my world. Besides, at one moment, I’m asked to accept that Manon is the most wonderful lover in the world.  The next she’s leaving again to return to  the other man, knowing the hurt she is inflicting.  How selfish is that?  You see my problem with her?)

The journey he undertakes is a heart-warming adventure back into the land of the living.   Accompanied by the young author, Max Jordan, who is struggling with a severe case of second novel syndrome, the people he meets along the way provide moments of scintillating literary discussion, high comedy, deep empathy, and generally breathe life and love back into the emotional corpse.  In stages –  as  illuminated by Hermann Hesse’s poem of the same name.

The text is both emotional and sensual, and, putting aside the issues I have with the love triangle and the general sainthood of Luc Bisset, Manon’s husband, in places quite touching. But, in others, overblown.  Particularly that redemption scene.  For incurable romantic mystics.   Not for me.

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