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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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IMG_0109Winner of the 2014 Akutagawa Prize

Translated from Japanese by Polly Barton

From one beautiful cover to the next – Pushkin Press certainly know how to package their goods!  But. While The Disappearances had me page-turning from the start, I can’t say I found Spring Garden so rivetting. But once I accepted that this is a quiet novel and a slow burner, I began to appreciate it a little more, even if I never really warmed to it.

Taro, a young divorcé,  who has decided that he can no longer share his space, lives alone in an emptying apartment block in Setagaya, a middle class suburb of Tokyo.  The landlord has decided to demolish the building and sell the land for redevelopment.  Taro is one of the last renters in the block.  He has no friends, and spends his time, when not working, lounging on the floor brooding about his recently deceased father.  The ever increasing void around him doesn’t perturb him unduly.  He’ll find somewhere new to live when his lease expires.

One day he notices one of his remaining neighbours spying on the sky-blue house opposite the apartment block. A casual friendship develops between him and Nishi, the older women “spy”.  Her fixation on the house began years before when she found a coffee table book entitled “Spring Garden” with this house and the life lived by its then inhabitants as its subject.  The life seemed ideal, the couple happy, and yet they, a famous commercial producer and his actress wife, divorced only a couple of years after the publication of the book. Nishi has analysed the photographs for clues as to their unhappiness to the nth degree, but does not understand. Her objective is to see the whole house from the inside. When the opportunity arises, she takes it, but needs Taro’s help to complete her quest in its entirety.

I use the word quest purposefully, because to Nishi, it is just that, even if it doesn’t seem much of an adventure to me.  And so much of this novel seemed off kilter in other ways.   There is a mystery surrounding the celebrity couple, that turns out to be a non-mystery.  Those remaining in the apartment block – particularly Taro – seem stuck in a state of permanent stasis. Are they paralysed by the non-stop change of the city in which they live?

Because I have to say there doesn’t seem to be much character development or even story-arc.  That’s not to say that there aren’t character studies.  It’s just that they didn’t run particularly deep for me, and I couldn’t decide whether Taro was grief-stricken or simply lacksadaisical. Perhaps the objective of the piece is to simply to document the realities of urban life in contemporary Tokyo; loneliness, chance encounters and the resulting fleeting friendships, the temporariness of our place in the world. This latter point emphasised by fine observations from nature.

Spring Garden works on this thematic level.  But it falls apart when I start looking at details.  What is the purpose of that change of narrator 4/5ths of the way through the novel, for instance.  To help us see Taro through sympathetic eyes, those of his sister? To endear him to us?  It didn’t work.  And as for that plot device in the final scene in the Spring Garden house.  My eyes rolled. (Honestly I remember using it myself in a primary school story.)

Given that Spring Garden won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, I will assume that Japanese tastes differ widely from mine, and that I am blind to this story’s virtues. I wonder, though, whether the same would be true of the other titles in Pushkin Press’s Japanese novella series.  Has anyone read them?  Are they worth picking up?


This read, a rare fail, completes my Round the World With Pushkin Press reading project.  Or rather, it would have done, had I not had so much fun visiting 10 countries on my first circuit, that I’ve decided to add a second!

Next stop: Australia

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Kate has opened this month’s journey with the bestselling Wild Swans by Jung Chang. Everyone was reading this in the 1990s – everyone except me, that is,

Neither have I read John Spurling’s The Ten Thousand Things – also set in China.  It won the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize in 2015, and is the only winner I have yet to read. I intend to do so before the end of this year.

Talking of completist reading, I have only one book remaining from this year’s Walter Scott Historical Fiction shortlist – Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist.

The thought of vanishing leads me to The Disappearances, an excellent young adult novel recently published by Pushkin Press, with one of the most beautiful covers of 2017.

I do love a beautiful book, and each year I make a point of determining the most beautiful book in the Edinburgh Book Festival Bookshop.  A copy of this year’s winner made its way home with me a fortnight ago. That would be The Sketchbook of Edinburgh.

Most of my book shopping is done in Edinburgh, and when I’m looking for something special – like a copy of the Moxon Tennyson – I head for the second-hand bookshop paradise in the West Port. The Pre-Raphaelite woodcuts are what make this edition so special. Here are a couple graced with the presence of the real Lizzie.

Lizzie was, of course, the original stunner, but there were others – Effi, Fanny, Jane, et al, and in Wives and Stunners, Henrietta Garnett, tells their stories.  Men may have created the most famous paintings, but where would they have been without their muses?

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As is now traditional here, I like to start Women in Translation Month with a list of the women in translation I have read during the past twelve months.  This year’s list consists of 19 books translated from 10 languages.  The titles of my favourite five are in bold, and, when you see them, you’ll realise that I can’t wait for another novel from Ayelet Gundar-Goshen!

Listed in the order I read them.

Hotel Bosphorus – Esmahan Aykol
Translated from Turkish by Ruth Whitehouse

Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

Innocence Or Murder in Streep Street – Heda Margolius Kovaly
Translated from Czech by Alex Zucker

The Trap – Melanie Raabe
Translated from German by Imogen Taylor

The Decision – Britta Böhler
Translated from Dutch by Jeanette K Ringold

All Russians Love Birch Trees – Olga Grajsnowna
Translated from German by Eva Bacon

The Golden Yarn – Cornelia Funke
Translated from German by Oliver Latsch

The Boy – Wytske Versteeg
Translated from Dutch by Sarah Welling

The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George
Translated from German by Simon Pare

Craving – Ester Gerritsen
Translated from Dutch by Michele Hutchison

When the Doves Disappeared – Sofi Oksanen
Translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers

Rasputin and Other Ironies – Teffi
Translated from Russian by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Rose France and Anne Marie Jackson

One Night, Markovitch – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

Memoirs of A Polar Bear – Yoko Tawada (Review to follow)
Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky

The Story of My Teeth – Valeria Luiselli
Translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney

The Bird Tribunal – Agnes Ravatn
Translated from Norwegian by Rosie Hedger

Fever Dream – Samantha Schweblin
Translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal – Dorthe Nors
Translated from Danish by Misha Hoekstra

Go Went Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck (Review to follow)
Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky

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Two years ago I met Corinna and Claudia, the ladies from the German cultural blog Nachtgedanken at the Edinburgh Book Festival.  You must come to the Leipzig Book Fair, they exhorted.  It’s so different from any other festival.  You’ll enjoy it, they said.  They were right.  It is, and I did.  What they didn’t tell me is that it is also ex-haust-ing.

Leipzig Book Fair is the second largest in Germany.  It is a trade fair but also one for readers.  Perhaps mainly for readers. Definitely mainly for readers. Author events take place at almost every publisher stall; there are special event spaces in each exhibition hall; tv and radio stations have their own areas with special programmes broadcasting all day, every day.  But more than that, there are readings all over the city, a great number of which are free!  The Book Fair is one part of a bigger celebration of reading  – Leipzig Liest (Leipzig is reading) – and given the numbers that flocked to the exhibition halls, that was certainly true. Reading and dressing-up – 105,000 visitors in 4 days to the Manga-Comic-Con in Hall 1 alone; most of whom came dressed as their favourite fantasy figure. (Instagram feed here.)

I was in Leipzig for the four days of the fair; two of which I spent in the exhibition centre, the other two recuperating exploring the new-to-me city.  The main issue for me was the lack of seating.  Events are so popular and the cubed seating so scarce. It doesn’t matter if you are in plenty of time for your author event.  These run back-to-back every half-hour so that you need to be strategically placed to pounce – and I do mean pounce – if you are to stand a chance of resting your weary pins.  There is obviously a knack to surviving the fair – not attempting consecutive events for 6 hour shifts, making use of the break-out areas, and leaving through the correct entrance, avoiding (what felt like) a 2-mile walk to the tram, for instance.  I’ll bear these things in mind for next time, but as this was my first visit, I was the kid in the proverbial sweetie-shop, wanting to see as many authors as I could, given the increasing rarity of German literature events in Scotland.

I saw a fair few and quite a bit of Matthias Énard as well! The Prix Goncourt winning Compass was awarded the Leipzig Book Prize for European Undertanding in the opening ceremony and you might say, Day 1 was Matthias Énard day.  He was the first author I heard speak and he kept popping up throughout the day.  As you will see. Enjoy the slide show from the comfort of your own seat. No elbows needed to claim it, I hope!

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I also attended two of the Leipzig Liest events: the first,  a reading of murderous tales out in the suburbs at Schkeuditz Library.  Bernd Köstering, whose Weimar Trilogy I have reviewed was there; the second a reading in the Egyptian Museum by Titus Müller, one of Corinna’s and Claudia’s favourite historical authors.  And I must say, his Der Tag X is now a must-read.  I enjoyed both of these events immensely – for a start, there were seats ….. and no background noise.  I could relax and simply enjoy.  Note to self – include more of these Leipzig Liest events next time.

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Bernd Köstering (left) Titus Müller (right)

 

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The chances are you’ve seen this video by Tribes.  The counter is currently showing 44 million views, but, as it is simply the most powerful message I’ve seen recently about the futility of war, given the current predilection for (what will hopefully be only another round of) sabre-rattling, I’m including it here.

Estimating the number of deaths in all those conflicts is an impossible task, the numbers from World War Two are mind-boggling enough. But each of those 80 million deaths was an individual tragedy, and it’s on the individual level that we feel the pain more acutely.

I left Heinrich Böll as he was leaving high school entering the book trade, seeking ways to avoid becoming another cog in the Nazi machine. In the years between then and the publication of Where were you, Adam? in 1951, he was conscripted into the Wehrmacht. He survived 4 wounds and typhoid fever to distill those experiences into this short and powerful novella.

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From The Collected Stories of Heinrich Böll – Translated from German by Leila Vennewitz

With no preamble Böll pitches the reader onto the Eastern Front. Hungary 1944. The war is lost and the German army is retreating from the advance of the Russians. Except the words defeat and retreat are forbidden – all movement must be packaged as redeployment. Call it what they will, the horrors and absurdities of war still prevail.  Generals knowingly send men without enough firepower into battle to buy time.  Amidst the carnage, Nazis still have resource and energy to clear the ghettos.

So much for the big picture. Individual stories break down abstractions and generalisations and this is where Böll’s story excels. He relates the story of the German defeat through a collage of experiences: those of the different ranks in the Wehrmacht together with representatives the civilian population. Each episode is depicted realistically with sufficient detail to engage this civilian reader’s senses and emotions without overdoing it. (Unlike this one.)

The first episode begins  with the general inspecting his battalion shortly before sending them into battle:

First came a face, large, yellow, tragic, moving past their lines; that was the general. The general looked tired. The face with puffy blue shadows under the malaria-yellow eyes, the slack, thin-lipped mouth of a man dogged by bad luck, moved hurriedly past the thousand men. … Each of the three times three hundred and thirty-three men into whose faces he looked was aware of a strange feeling: sorrow, pity, fear, and a secret fury.  Fury at this war, which had already gone on far too long …..

Those emotions were key to my reading because in the course of the 134 pages, I felt all of those (although there’s nothing secret about my fury).  For while the German army is staging its retreat – sorry, redeployment – the body count still rises.  And these men – conscripts, in the main – are destined to fall.  But they aren’t just statistics.  Their backstories render them human and in some cases, more vulnerable because of a chronic health condition.  Another man is a wine merchant, conscripted and sent by the whim of some delusional maniac to source 50 bottles of the finest Hungarian wine.  Amidst the madness there are fine examples of courage: doctors and medical orderlies who remain with patients in post-operative recovery to give them a chance of survival.

Civilian life is represented by the Hungarian landlady who quarters the  German troops. She makes a good living out of the war and is sorry when her time of bounty is over.  Conversely there is the Catholic Jewish teacher, Ilona, who makes an unwise choice to visit her parents in the ghetto.

The episodic structure is held together by the figure of Feinhals, whose movements take us from one story to the next.  Wounded in the opening battle (much to his relief) , he is taken to the medical station, the location of the second and third chapters.  Post recovery he meets Ilona, but their love affair is short-lived as he receives further redeployment orders.  And so it continues with increasing absurdity and meaningless sacrifice until the end of the war when Feinhals is decommissioned and on the threshold of his parent’s home.

I’m struggling to identify the most absurd moment of them all.  Could that be poor Fleck’s death who dies on the battlefield, pierced in the chest by one of those 50 wine bottles.

“In the chest?”

“That’s right – he must have been kneeling over his suitcase.”

“Contrary to regulations”, said the second lieutenant.

How macabre is that?

But there is further absurdity to follow including a bridge that is rebuilt only to be destroyed by the builders the day after completion.  You couldn’t make it up, and I suspect Böll didn’t.  As for meaninglessness, the apex is reached in the last chapter, in the last gasp of the war.  It is an incident that is well-signalled, and has been subtly foreshadowed throughout. Nevertheless it resurrected all those emotions highlighted in the first chapter.   It also made this reader raise a white flag in the face of human stupidity.

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The first book of 2017

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Today I am celebrating the reclamation of my reading sofa with an illustrated anthology of writing about the pleasures of reading. The German title translates as Read and Let Read. Similarities between the the reader on the dust jacket and myself are entirely coincidental, though as I can slouch once more in my reading nook, I am as happy as the proverbial ….

I hope 2017 proves to be an excellent reading year for us all

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