Archive for the ‘review’ Category

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!!

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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.

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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.


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!

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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.

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Now I could pretend that these two reading choices were made because of their operatic connections, but that wouldn’t be truthful.  The fact of it is that I chose these books because of their connections with the first two destinations in my #gapyeartravels, Prague and Munich.  They also have a further connection.  The first was a recommendation from Denis Jackson, the translator I interviewed in 2015 for German Literature Month.  The second was translated by Mike Mitchell, interviewed in 2014.


Translated by Leopold Loewenstein-Wertheim

In the words of Denis Jackson, Eduard Mörike’s novella, Mozart’s Journey to Prague (1855) is “a light-hearted tale of the composer’s journey from Vienna to Prague to attend the opening performance of the opera, Don Giovanni. It is Mörike’s supreme achievement in prose, clearly revealing Mörike’s spiritual affinity with the composer and the profound emotions aroused in him by his opera.”

Now I’m no opera lover – in fact, I have an affinity with Cora Dulz, the soprano-hating protagonist of my second read.  So much of the operatic hommage to Don Giovanni was lost on me.  Jackson’s point about spiritual affinity of the author with Mozart is an interesting one though, given that Mozart, at least the Mozart in these pages, comes across as immature and irresponsible, whose life would go off-track if it weren’t for the patience and virtues of his capable wife.  I know I’m not meant to judge it this way as Mörike’s purpose is to show, in a humorous fasion, how the real world conflicts with the demands of Mozart’s genius and talent.  Certainly it is Mozart’s preoccupations with his music that lead to him absent-mindedly picking an orange from a tree in the grounds of a stately home. A common man would have been arrested for theft but Mozart has his name to save him, provided he agrees to spend the rest of the day with the baron and his family. He does so, providing them with an exclusive preview of the opera which is to be performed shortly in Prague.

This is a charming novella, a loving homage to Mozart’s life and genius, though not really to my taste.  It is far too gentle …


Translated by Mike Mitchell

… which cannot be said of the second book, one I read pre-blog and have since puzzled about why it is not better known.  Helmut Krausser’s The Great Bagarozy (1997) is a clever novel, full of black laugh-out-loud humour, concerning a psychiatrist in crisis and the devil who identifies her weak spot.  Dark and sticky like a tin of treacle,  I know it’s bad for me, but I can’t stop at one spoonful.

The non-opera loving psychiatrist Cora is bored, both privately and professionally.  The latter is evidenced during the first consultation with her new client, Nagy.  She is more concerned with her post-shift shopping list than with his woes.  But it takes only a couple of sessions before she is reeled in and finds herself obsessed with this ambiguous character claiming to be the Devil incarnate.  Nagy can certainly read her better than she can read him.  She starts overstepping professional boundaries – though not as many as she would like, given that he awakens a desire in her that she has not felt for years. Where will this obsession lead?

Her obsession mirrors her client’s with Maria Callas.  Nagy’s zest for life disappeared after her death, at which time he had been following her – incognito – for years.  At one point he claimed to have been her agent, named Bagarozy; at the time of her death, her pet black poodle. This latter position obviously gave him access to the most private parts of her life and many intimate details of Maria Callas’s life are woven into his story.

But can this deluded tale possibly be true? “There’s a rational explanation for everything”, claims Cora’s husband at one point, a prosaic man whose only quirk is to collect stories of bizarre deaths. (Foregleams of what is to follow.) Really?  That’s the question at the centre of this novel and Krausser demonstrates a brilliant sleight-of-pen in balancing the rational and supernatural to keep the reader guessing.  It’s a skill worthy of Bagaroz himself, Nagy’s stage magician alter-ego. All I’m saying is that Cora does lose her soul but I won’t reveal how or whether it is to a devil of a man or to the devil with a capital D.

So Maria Callas is the operatic connection here.  The connection to my #gapyeartravel destination of Munich is not that the novel is set there, but that the author lives there.  This  may be a tenuous link but so too is the Prague connection in Mörike’s novella.  We never reach that beautiful city in those pages either.  No worries, I had better luck aligning my travelling and reading destination in my next review.

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Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel , a former deputy culture minister, was on the Berlin S -bahn commuter train on her way to Ikea to buy a ‘Billy’ bookshelf when she received a call on her mobile phone  that would put an abrupt end to her peaceful retirement from a long career in public service.

The call in 2012 was a request for her to lead an investigation into the cache of artwork that had found in the Munich home of the elderly recluse, Cornelius Gurlitt.No ordinary cache this – it comprised of over 1400 paintings and drawings, with an estimated value of €1 billion! Nazi-looted art – allegedly.

I use the word allegedly because, while most – if not all – of the artwork was obtained from Jews selling their treasures to finance their escape from Nazi Germany or from the museums of vanquished nations, it is not at all certain, whether it was stolen in the  eyes of the law. If the painting was purchased – even for a pittance – it was not stolen, and, if it was sold on at a profit, then the new owner has a legal right to the painting.

Cornelius Gurlitt inherited his collection from his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, Hitler’s chief art dealer.  Hickley shows, indeed proves, that Hildebrand played the rules for all their worth.  Acquiring masterpieces for Hitler’s private collection and very different pieces for his own.  Because Hildebrand had a discerning eye and was a great admirer of so-called ‘degenerate’ art – art which the Nazis condemned and would frequently destroy.  Much of the Gurlitt collection was ‘degenerate’ in that sense, and this is what enabled Cornelius to claim after seizure of his collection that it was not stolen, it was saved.

But could he prove that his father had purchased them? Difficult, because Hildebrandt had often claimed that the paperwork was destroyed in the bombing of Dresden.  And yet, Hildebrandt had previously been known to lie, which can only mean that some of his collection was obtained illegally.

These are very murky waters, not made any clearer by the ethics.  There is now an international standard which recognises that stolen artworks should be returned to their original owners, provided that their heirs have the documents proving provenance.  But where does that leave the legal rights of those who bought the paintings in good faith – in many cases, public museums in countries all over the world?   This explains the years-long lawsuits that are being contested in many countries. It will be interesting to see what transpires in the most recent lawsuit of Moll vs The National Gallery.

Law vs ethics.  The only resolution seems to be to sell the painting and split the monies between current owner and th claimants.  Which is why many museums have been raising funds to buy back paintings already hanging on their walls.  Plus there are the human tragedies that are often forgotten.  Hinckley, however, places the human stories at the centre of her book: the Jewish community who lost everything and the paintings which are the only ancestral keepsakes they can hope to retrieve. Neither does she forget the wrong committed against Cornelius Gurlitt, a man with obvious mental issues, who lived only to enjoy his art collection.  It appears that the German authorities confiscated it illegally, and now that Gurlitt has died, with no heirs, his collection remains in storage.  The authorities have no idea what to do with it.

Fact is sometimes stranger than fiction.

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imageTranslated from Dutch by Sam Garrett

My second read for #dutchlitautumn is the third novel published in English by Herman Koch, which I approached with trepidation still feeling sleazy after reading Summer House with Swimming Pool.  A make or break read if you will.  Would this reader/author relationship survive?

Koch specialises in unsavoury characters, and he doesn’t take long to hit his stride here.   The opening section is a monologue addressed to Mr M by Herman, a man with a grudge stemming from the appropriation of his adolescent self in one of Mr M’s novels. Herman is to all intents and purposes a stalker.  I have plans for you, Mr M, he says with menace.

Mr M’s novel, Payback, was based on a case in which a teacher disappeared without trace.  Jan Landzaat, married with two children, had been romantically involved with his pupil, Laura.  He struggled emotionally when she traded him in for the rather ugly and gangly, Hermann, and wouldn’t let go.  After following Laura and Herman to a remote hideout,  Landzaat disappeared without trace.  While no case was brought against Laura and Herman for lack of evidence, in Mr M’s novel Laura and Herman are guilty of murder.  It was a high profile case, and once can only imagine the resulting impact of the novel on the lives of the two teenagers.

Koch’s novel examines the events leading up to the teacher’s disappearance from the viewpoints of the main characters, and nobody comes out well:  Laura, the prettiest girl in the class, and arch manipulator; Landzaat, the teacher with form, and Herman, who owns a video camera, which he uses as a candid camera, filming people during moments of high provocation.  This is a foretaste of the stalker he is to become, as well as a delicious irony.  The  younger Herman is just as intrusive in other people’s lives as Mr M will be in his own. Is the fact that Koch gives Herman his own name a commentary on an author’s keen powers of observation? At what point does such observation become intrusive?

This is just the tip of the metafictional iceberg at the heart of Dear Mr M, which is as much an analysis and satire of the writing life as it is a mystery.  At one point Mr M is interviewed about his objectives and decision making processes. In those pages, explanations are given for the necessary simplifications and omissions in Payback which in turn clarifies the occasional bagginess of Koch’s long but clever novel.  If you look closely, this interview also hints at the solution of what really happened to Mr Landzaat.

The tone is sly and snidey throughout.  Those expecting the shock (as in horrifying) value of Koch’s previous offerings  may be disappointed, although there is a final twist which may shock some. I had seen it coming – not that it matters. It’s a satisfying ending in which loose ends are tied … apart from one.  Just what did Stella do?  The fact that both Mr M and Koch deliberately do not tell niggles the hell out of me …..  I shall ask Koch about that, if I catch sight of him at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Despite that Koch and I are once more friends and I look forward to reading more.  I notice that there is a fourth Koch novel in existence, Odessa Star.  I hope that Sam Garrett is working on the English translation as I type.

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