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Mengstrasse 4, Lübeck

Earlier this year I recorded my trip to Theodor Storm’s home town of Husum, but I never told you what happened after that.  I travelled from the North Sea coast to the Baltic Coast.  To Lübeck, the home town of Thomas Mann, where a visit to Mengstrasse 4, the former home of Mann’s grandparents, is obligatory for German litlovers.  Why? Because that is where the Heinrich and Thomas Mann Centre is situated.  Well, that may be it’s official name, but it is better known as the Buddenbrooks House, being the house Mann immortalised in his debut novel.

I made a beeline for the second floor. For it is dedicated to the novel, Buddenbrooks, in a way that is, as far as I am aware wholely unique.  Two rooms are presented as the Buddenbrooks’s sitting and dining rooms.

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The Sitting Room

They were sitting in the “land-scape room” on the first floor of the rambling old house in Meng Street, which the firm of Johann Buddenbrook had acquired some time since, though the family had not lived in it for long.  The room was hung with heavy resilient tapestries put up  in such a way that they stood well out from the walls. They were woven in soft tones to harmonise with the carpet, and they depicted idyllic landscapes in the style of the eighteenth century, with merry vine-dressers, busy husbandmen and gaily beribboned shepherdesses who sat beside crystal streams with spotless lambs in their laps or exchanged kisses with amorous shepherds,  These scenes were usually lighted by a pale yellow sunset to match the yellow coverings on the white enammelled furniture and the yellow silk curtains at the two windows.

For the size of the room, the furniture was rather scant.  A round table, its slender legs decorated with fine lines of gilding, stood, not in front of the sofa, but by the wall opposite the little harmonium, on which lay a flute case, some stiff arm chairs were ranged in a row round the walls, there was a sewing table by the window, and a flimsy ornamented writing-desk laden with knick-knacks. (Translation H T Lowe-Porter)

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The Dining Room

The tapestries in this room had a sky-blue background, against which, between slender columns, white figures of gods and goddesses stood out with plastic effect,  The heavy red damask window-curtains were drawn; stiff, massive sofas in red damask stood ranged against the walls, and in each corner stood a tall gilt candelabrum with eight flaming candles, besides those in silver sconces on the table.  Above the heavy sideboard, on the wall opposite the landscape room, hung a large painting of an Italian bay, the misty blue atmosphere of which was most effective in the candle-light. (Translation H T Porter Lowe)

Look more closely and you will see individual artifacts tagged with the the numbers of the pages in which they make individual appearances if you will.  Unfortunately the labels don’t detail the relevant edition.  Still I’ll include the photos here, for anyone who may be reading Buddenbrooks at the moment.  Let me know when you track down the relevant passage.

The permanent interactive exhibition on the ground floor details the life and times of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, and made me understand that Buddenbrooks, like many debut novels, contains many autobiographical elements.  For instance, the Mann family originated from Rostock, and many of Hanno Buddenbrook’s experiences were based on those of the author, such as his torment during his school days at the Katharineum.

The museum’s mission statement is to encourage readers to pick up read or re-read the works of the Manns.  I can report a case of mission achieved, because right now, I am deep into what must be my 5th or 6th reading of Buddenbrooks, and  I am loving every word all over again.

It’s where my journey during German Literature Month VII will begin.  Have you made any plans yet?

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Doesn’t time fly?  It seems only two minutes ago since we were celebrating GLM VI.  So quickly has this year gone, that I’ve still to create the GLM VI index.  (Which I will do sometime in October as I will be without wi-fi during the second half of September.) However, I digress, let’s get the flags out for GLM VII!

And start with some great news.

Caroline, who has had a recent struggle with her health, has recovered sufficiently to co-host with me once more.  So both our blogs, Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat and Lizzy’s Literary Life will be dedicated to German literature during November.

Will you be dusting down some neglected tomes from your bookshelves? Reading more from a favourite author or treating yourself to some newly translated works?  There’s a lot to celebrate in German Literature this year: the Theodor Storm bi-centennial, the Heinrich Böll centennial, the 3 German titles on the longlist for the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.  It’s hard to know where to start, and impossible to fit it all in. So Caroline and I have decided to let you meander through the trails of German literature wherever and in whatever fashion you may wish (and perhaps, between us, we’ll cover it all.)

The whole month will be read as you please, with two readalongs for those who enjoy social reading.

On 15th November, the date of the Warwick Prize award, I will be discussing Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of A Polar Bear.

On 29th November, Caroline will discuss Lion Feuchtwanger’s The Oppermanns as part of her War and Literature series.

There is no obligation to participate in the readalongs.  As ever,  the only rule for German Literature Month is to simply enjoy reading something originally written in German.  A novel, a play, a poem. Literary non-fiction, even.  Blog about it. Tweet about it. Review on goodreads or any other review site of your choice.  Just let the world know about the treasures to be found in German Literature (and let us know about it also on a special link that will be made available on November 1st).

In years past support for German Literature Month has been phenomenal, and the event is now a true highlight of our reading calendar.  Will GLM VII match its predecessors? It will if you join us.  Will you?

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Just wondering if you know the story of how this blog came to be? I lost a notebook containing 5 years of reading notes and decided that, henceforth, I would put those notes somewhere I couldn’t lose them.  Cue the birth of Lizzy’s Literary Life.  Right now I am filled with a sense of déjà-vu, because my #edbookfest notebook is missing ….

That is not the apocalypse to which the title of this post refers, however.  Rather to those in the latest novels of Louise Welsh and Heinz Helle. As if one were not enough, Edinburgh Book Festival treated us to two within the space of one hour.

From left to right: Heinz Helle, Louise Welsh and chairperson Anna Day

No Dominion is the third in Louise Welsh’s trilogy, set in a world ravaged by The Sweats, a flu-like pandemic, which has killed off about 80% of the world’s population.  7 years after the Sweats first struck, the main protagonists of the two previous novels, Stevie Flint and Magnus McFall, find themselves on Orkney where the community has established a fledgling democracy. A handful of surviving orphans have been fostered. The majority of them are now adolescent and, in addition to the usual teenage angst, are now in the throes of a fury caused by the limitations of their future.  So when strangers appear on the island and promise them a better future on the mainland, specifically in Glasgow, they all run away.

But just before they go, the foster parents of one of the children are brutally murdered.  This gives both Stevie Flint (now elected leader of the New Orkney council – “the sweats were the making of her”‘, said Louise Welsh) and Magnus McFall,  the foster father of one of the runways, valid reason to give chase.  The journey to Glasgow is fraught with danger, because not every form of governance encountered along the way is as reasonable as that established in Orkney.  They encounter feudalism, protectionism, and, when they get to Glasgow, dictatorship, all with psychopaths installed as leaders. While Stevie and Magnus show ever escalating and most alarming tendencies to match violence with violence, the malignity of these new regimes does not bode well for the survival of the naive teenagers who have preceded them.

“It is a quest”, said Louise Welsh.  “All my novels are quests.”  Indeed, but this is a terrifying, violent quest, and its vivid depictions of that violence are not for the squeamish.  At its core, No Dominion raises two fundamental questions: 1) when it is OK to kill another human being?, and 2) when does a child stop being a child?  In the context of a trilogy examining a broad range of societal issues –  book 1, A Lovely Way to Burn, the pharmaceutical industry, book 2, Death is A Welcome Guest, the justice system and religious fanaticism – this third volume focuses on human political systems. I can’t fault Welsh for the ambition of her undertaking, and I have raced through all three volumes this year, but I do wish there could have been less swearing.  I know, I know.  Given the extreme circumstances, such language is in keeping with the realism of Welsh’s writing,  but I did find myself wishing there could have been less – a lot less – of it.

Now Heinz Helle has written the non-sweary post-apocalyptic novel I was wishing for, but it’s no less shocking for that.  If fact, given the pared down language and matter-of-fact narrative style, its shock factor is probably greater.

Translated from German by Kári Driscoll

Each year Helle takes a vacation with his male friends in the Tyrol.  One morning as he looked down into the valley, he wondered what would happen if they were to find that the world had ended while they were away …. cue, Euphoria, surely the most ironic title of the year.

Just think about it – do you have the skillsets to survive in a world where all our technological innovations are defunct.? Nothing works anymore; all the food is gone and the rest of mankind has been obliterated as well.  There is no explanation for what has happened in Helle’s novel.  In fact, the author himself does not know,  “Explaining the science is not important”,  agreed Louise Welsh, “because the book is not about the science.”  So what would you do?

The 5 men in Helle’s novel descend to the valley, scavenging what they can along the way, losing their morals, language and humanity as they trudge through the countryside.  We’re in Lord of The Flies territory here, but with grown men.   Where are they heading? Away from here – to somewhere better.  Movement is their only remaining purpose in life and their hold on life is precarious.   All it takes is an accident ….

Structured into 69 episodes, shuffling between the post-apocalyptic present and the comfortable pre-apocalyptic past, the descent into barbarity is inevitable; shock lying in the speed of it.  I felt that even though the rape scene, episode 1 in the original German edition, does not appear until scene 16 in the English translation.  (Good call, I feel.  I doubt I would have read on with that as an opening, despite the dispassion of its telling.)  The shuffling of past and present serves as a constant reminder of what these men have lost, and. more importantly, a reminder of what we have now, of what should make us feel euphoric. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel, both literally and metaphorically for Helle’s protagonists, but that needn’t be the case for us.  “We shouldn’t take what we have for granted”, said Helle. We need to protect it now.  Once lost, we may never regain it.

The world goes on as usual in the #edbookfest signing tent

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Earlier this week this list  of 10 essential German novels, all written by men, started recirculating around Facebook. It’s not what you want to read during Women in Translation Month, is it?  So Tony from Tony’s Reading List and I curated the following alternative list:

1) Malina – Ingeborg Bachmann
Chosen by but not yet read by myself. Top of my German-lit TBR!

2) The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine – Alina Bronsky
Chosen and reviewed by myself.

3) Child of the Parish – Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
Chosen and reviewed by Tony.


4) Visitation – Jenny Erpenbeck
Chosen and reviewed by myself.

5) Summerhouse, Later – Judith Hermann
Chosen and reviewed by Tony.

6) The Artificial Silk Girl – Irmgard Keun
Chosen and reviewed (if somewhat negatively) by myself.

7) Blumenberg – Sybille Lewitscharoff
Chosen and reviewed by Tony.

8) Transit – Anna Seghers
Chosen by myself.  Shares top spot of my German-lit TBR with Malina.  Tony’s review is here.

9) The Mussel Feast – Birgit Vanderbeke
Chosen and reviewed by Tony.

10) Cassandra – Christa Wolf
Chosen and reviewed by Tony.

What do you think of our alternative list?  All titles are available in English translation, should you be tempted to read them. Is there another work that you would like to see included? If so, which title would you replace it with?

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My love of Theodor Storm’s C19th novellas is well-documented on this blog, as is my admiration for his English translator, Denis Jackson, whose generous response to my Meet the Translator feature (1, 2, 3) is probably the German Literature Month highlight that will never be surpassed.

Last month I finally got the opportunity to visit Storm country, although with only 3 days, there was not enough time to visit a hallig or wander out to Hattstedt, the setting of Der Schimmelsreiter (Translated by Jackson as The Dykemaster). I did, however, walk 4km along the Husum dyke to the North Sea.

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View of Husum from the dyke

Storm, famously called Husum the grey town by the sea.  Well, there wasn’t much greyness in the 3 days I was there.  Husum presented itself most colourfully, and it would appear I’m not the only person to think so.

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The colourful town by the sea

With a harbour teaming with restaurants and bars serving wonderful fish dishes (best meal of the holiday for €7.00), centuries-old houses and cottages, many decorated with roses or lavender in bloom, and a café serving cakes to die for (my favourite find of the holiday), Husum is a lovely little place.

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It is, of course, made entirely special through its links to Theodor Storm, who lived just around the corner from my accommodation (literally!) . The tourist office makes it easy for those on a Storm pilgrimage, having designed a walk taking in 34 mostly Storm-related sites.  Here are a few highlights.

Firstly places where Storm lived and died.

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Secondly settings in Husum appearing in Storm’s novellas.

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The second set demonstrates the indivisibility of Storm’s narratives and the local landscape.  While Storm’s stories put Husum and the surrounding area on the map in the C19th, they continue to contribute to the success of the area down to this day. 14th September 2017 marks the bicentennial of his birth and Husum will be celebrating its most famous son with style. I’ll party along with the new Denis Jackson translation of Storm’s novella Grieshuus: Chronicle of A Family, which was pre-ordered just as soon as I heard about it!

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Translated from German by Peter Millar

After 1945 and 1946, the third part of my fictional exploration of post-war Hamburg reaches the bitterly cold winter of 1946 and the torridly hot summer of 1947, which seemed designed to inflict further suffering on the population of the devastated city.

The Murderer in Ruins, as ice-cold as the landscape,  is killing people and leaving their naked bodies amidst the rubble of Hamburg.  There are no identifying marks. Neither are there any reports of missing persons.  Not as strange as it sounds, given that Hamburg is full of displaced persons with little to no connection to the surviving home population.  The unfortunate chief inspector Stave is tasked with finding the killer, aided by the British officer, Lieutenant MacDonald, but where to start?

Based on a real case in which the four victims remained as unidentified as the killer, Rademacher’s novel reflects the frustration of a case with no leads, no clues in a city trying to reestablish the rule of  law.  After all, given recent body counts, what difference do 4 more bodies make?  The reader must be patient – very patient – as each assumed lead draws a blank.  But, as the author explained at Newcastle Noir, he has reconstructed the case fictionally in order to provide his own solution.  And so the resolution, in which the crimes of the present are inextricably linked with German crimes of the past,  depends on a chance observation ….

I admit, as a thriller, I struggled with the tortoise-like pace of the investigation, but, as a piece of historical fiction, I was bound by the detail of Rademacher’s reconstruction of post-war Hamburg and the psychologies of the characters. Stave, himself, is damaged goods, having lost his  wife in the fire-bombing of Hamburg, and his only son to the Nazis and the Eastern Front.  Despite their ideological estrangement, the father loves his son, desperately combing Hamburg main station for him whenever a train arrives with soldiers returning from the war.  His anxiety is palpable and can only increase when he discovers his son is a POW in Siberia ….

I found Stave a very sympathetic character.  Hamburg is, despite the weather, a hot bed of vice and black-marketeering, and he is a man who understands the importance of overlooking petty crimes to prevent being deflected from the main chase. However, racked with guilt about his wife, anxiety about his son, he is in need of a break. And in Anna, a mysterious aristocratic refugee and skilled black marketeer from East Prussia, it would appear he gets one.  It’s a relationship that seems destined for  greater things, if only he can forget that she tells him nothing of her past …

The exploration of East Prussia and the people who fled to avoid the “Ivans” is continued into the second novel of what will be a trilogy.  The Wolf Children is the collective name given to the mass of child refugees who flowed westwards.  Either orphaned or separated from their parents during the mass exodus at the end of the war, they lived a feral existence in Hamburg, learning to capitalise on opportunities presented by the black market or to engage in child prostitution.  They had their enemies and there was plenty of gang in-fighting,   So when the body of a teenage boy is found lying on top of an unexploded bomb in the harbour area of Hamburg, it is assumed that he is one of them.

Inspector Stave’s second case is a little easier than the first, in that he does at least identify the corpse.  Otherwise the waters are as murky as those of the Elbe, with his prospective Wolf Children witnesses being killed almost as soon as he has talked to them.

Once again I didn’t find the case as enthralling as the social history it explored. The identification of the murderer is quite well-signposted although the motivation for the boy’s killing would be utterly unbelievable if it wasn’t based on obscure historical fact. The things we do not know! Rademacher’s vision for these novels is greater than the murder mystery, and I would say that the scope of this second novel is to investigate the impact of war on the younger generations.  It is quite heartbreaking in places – no more so than in relation to Chief Inspector Stave’s son.

The war may be over but the repercussions are severe.  The world remains fractured, its logic twisted.  Why else could nothing and nobody function without the black market and what are the British occupation forces doing dismantling the remaining machinery at Hamburg docks?  This can hardly be called peace. Personal relationships are suffering also.  Like the temperatures of the summer of 1947, resentments are rising.  Where is this heading?  I can hardly wait for the third instalment!

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When travelling,  it is important to connect with local culture. And so, while in Hamburg, I went on a quest with Uwe Timm’s The Invention of Curried Sausage to discover the origins of that particular culinary delight.  OK, I confess I bought my first one ever for the photo opportunity. Then I ate it. It was fine, but I’m not likely to repeat the experience.  Thankfully the novel was more to my taste.

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Translated from German by Leila Vennewitz

The rumour is that the curried sausage was invented in Hamburg in the autumn of 1945 by fast food stall owner, Lena Brucker.  In 1989 Uwe Timm’s fictional self, who as a child indulged frequently in this fast food, tracks her down to her old people’s home, with the intention of finding out how she did it.  It takes more time that he allocated, for Lena, now a lonely old woman, knows how to string out her story – particularly, when she has a young man who keeps coming back, bringing delicious German cake to each meeting.

But Lena’s story is no ordinary one and worth the wait (and the calories!) It takes us back to the final days of the Second World War, when Lena (43) meets the young naval officier, Hermann Bremer (24), and, seemingly on a whim, colludes in his desertion.  She keeps him hidden in her flat, but although the war is almost over, this is still a dangerous action.  Neighbours still spy on each other and are quick to denounce traitors to the authorities.

Once the war is over though, Lena decides that she would like to keep Hermann to herself a little longer and so, using the same creativity she will employ in the creation of her culinary masterpiece, she invents a continuation of the war, complete with manoevres and strategies, to convince Hermann that he must stay put. Of course, this is a tactic doomed at some point to failure, but Lena enjoys herself (and Hermann) while it lasts.

The surprise return of her womanising, free-loading husband after six years forces Lena to recognise her desire for independence, and once he is out of the way, she embarks on the journey – via barter and the black market – that, step by step and by fortuitous accident,  leads to her famous invention.

I’m remembering this story as a light-hearted one, which is strange given the backdrop of war-torn Hamburg, the dangers of harbouring a deserter, and the anathema that Lena must face from her British army employer when the horrors of the concentration camps become clear.  I think that is primarily due to Lena’s resilience and indomitable spirit, refusing to let history weigh her down, continuing to achieve the seemingly impossible.  Because how else do you explain a blind old woman retaining the capacity to knit a multi-coloured intarsia from memory, weaving in the clouds and sunshine of her own life along the way?

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