This is where I thank the OUP blog for alerting me to the Radio 4 series compiled by the Director of The British Museum, Dr Neil McGregor and seeking to distil 600 years of German history into 30×15 minute episodes. (The series is still available on iplayer for another 12 months, if you’re so inclined.)

The premise, which enables such concision, is the exploration of German history and culture through objects: one iconic object per episode. The series begins with the Brandenburg Gate and ends, completing its circle, with the Reichstag.  Inbetween there is a diverse mix of the great (Charlemagne’s crown) the good (Barlach’s Angel), the small (the coins of the Holy Roman Empire) the seemingly insignificant (a diving costume),the literary (Christa Wolf’s debut novel) and the absolutely essential (beer and sausages) … although not a mention of toasted almonds.  Tut, tut.

As brilliant as the series is, I found myself a little frustrated.  I am a visual communicator and I needed to see these artifacts. Without the time to visit London to see the special exhibition at the British Museum (on until 25.01.2015), I decided to treat myself to the accompanying book.  (At £30 it wasn’t cheap, but it was affordable and worth every penny.) I continued listening to the radio as I paged through the chapters, reading the more detailed text simultaneously   Pictures I wanted, and I was rewarded with a visual banquet  … of everything imaginable.  Maps of Germany through the ages, portraits, sculptures, historical documents, objects of state, domestic artifacts. Tales of grandeur, tales of the everyday.  Surprises.  For example: I had no idea Germany used to stretch – legitimately – into Russia or that Kant never left Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) and so never set foot in the Germany of today. I hesitated only as the dark chapters of the 20th century approached but even here McGregor provided details that are stranger than fiction such as the irony of design in the Buchenwald concentration camp gate. 

History has never been so immersive.. Nor do I think this book will be consigned to the shelves to gather dust.  I’m pretty sure it will serve as a springboard to more German history and a contextualising reference to further German literature reading from this point on.


Just in case you missed it, 2014 was the 25th anniversary since the fall of the Berlin Wall. So the publication of Fiona Rintoul’s debut novel which takes us back to the GDR in 1985 is well-timed.

Magda is a student linguist, desperate to escape along with her lover, Marek.  She’s not adverse to sleeping her way to freedom, if that’s what it takes.  So when Robert, a Scottish student studying for his Ph.D at Leipzig University arrives, she sees a means to an end.  He falls in love.  Both are double-crossed and must bear the wrath of the state.  In Magda’s case brutally. In Robert’s case, no less ruthlessly. That, however, is only half of the story. Years later, long after the Wall has disappeared, the truth of what happened in Leipzig is finally revealed.

The first half of the novel takes place when the GDR was firmly in the grip of communism.  While there is some freedom of movement and some black marketeering, the illusion of freedom is just that.  Every move is monitored and every life controlled.  The bluff and double-bluffs of the dissidents are more than matched by the Stasi. Magda might think she knows who is spying on her and who she can trust, but does she?  Enemies in plain sight are always the best camoflagued.

Robert’s story is just as interesting.  Why does a Scot studying at St. Andrews transfer to Leipzig in the mid-1980’s?  How do subsequent events scar him for life, lead him to a life of excess in the City, ultimately forcing him back to Germany to face his demons? 

Germanophiles will love this novel for its realistic depiction of the sinister heart of the GDR and for the truth that lives weren’t miraculously healed when the Wall fell.  Those less preoccupied with German history will enjoy the mystery at its core.  I did figure it out but only a couple of sentences before the reveal.

Rintoul deservedly won the Sceptre Prize and The Virginia Prize for Fiction with this novel.  I look forward to her second.



The second novel in my Berlin through the ages themed read takes place in 1946, just after the war, when Berlin lay in ruins. In fact, the depiction of Berlin at that time is so good, that I would award The Spring of Kasper Meier an honorary membership of German Trümmerliteratur, were it within my gift to do so!

They arrived at the back of the Reich Chancellery and stopped on the corner of Voßstraße. Standing side by side they looked across the barren grounds that had once been the Chancellery’s garden. surrounded by thin barbed wire in a meagre effort to deter souvenir hunters,it was now a strange landscape of charred trees, scrap metal and fallen stone. The concrete masses of the exploded bunker, with their intensely black shadows, appeared like a geometric puzzle – an upturned cube, a cylinder, a cone. Behind it, the Chancellery itself had retained only a few solid buildings, lne rooms amid rows of ruined walls, like broken teeth.

in the midst of this desolation, Kasper Meier is eking out a living on the black market as he tries to feed his elderly father and himself. His network of contacts is such that there is very little that escapes him or that he cannot find out should he have need of it. He soon does. Into his life walks Eva, who is trying to trace a British soldier. Meier, who wants to keep away from both the politics of post-war Berlin, and any association with the wave of murders of occupying forces, refuses to engage, only to find himself threatened with blackmail. For he, like everyone else, has secrets, which in the wrong hands could spell disaster.

Thus begins his search, not only for the British soldier, but, also for Eva’s mysterious employer, the ever pervasive Frau Beckmann. Kasper may kid himself that he is seeking to protect Eva, but there is a fair dose of self-preservation in his motivation. This path is fraught with danger for the occupying forces are hostile. Frau Beckmann also has two protective protegés, the twins Hans and Lena. More chilling psychopaths I have yet to encounter.

There is a sticky web of deceit at the heart of the plot, which is full of page-turning suspense. Yet the real strength lies in the the historical detail.  Fergusson’s interest in the city of this period was sparked by the scars on buildings that remain visible to this day.  Four years of resultant research has enabled him to recreate both the everyday and the alien, hostile and dangerous world that Berlin of 1946 undoubtedly was.



Last month I heard rumours of a fantastic new independent bookshop in St Andrews. It has taken me just over 4 weeks to travel 90 miles to the Kingdom of Fife to browse for myself.  Fortuitously I had need of a destination for my wedding anniversary weekend.  Before you say anything, Rossetti was happily ensconced in the husband creche ….

My source had warned me of the temptations of floor to ceiling shelves packed with signed first editions.  So I entered the threshold steeled against the oft-used wiles good independent bookstores.  And then, I saw the stuff of my fantasies materialise before my eyes …..

Is this a ladder I see before me?

The ladders are not just for cosmetic purposes.  Those shelves are high …  and they are packed with books.  In fact, apart from a couple of card stands, this shop is full of my favourite commodity. No distracting displays of pen, pencils, notebooks and e-readers.  This is a bona-fide  book-shop … with strategically placed nooks and comfy seats for bibliophiles to bide their time and browse their potential purchases.  There’s complimentary tea and coffee too. The company owner has gone on record as saying that he is “too jealous of the space” to put a café in one of his shops.  So your choice of beverage is brought to you on a tray and you are left to browse in peace and comfort.

Book browsing with a brew ….

 I particularly liked that the fiction section was divided into hardback and paperback sections, but not by genre. This led to some interesting relationships on the shelves.

Goddard, Goethe, Gogol

In line with Mark Forsyth’s essay “The Unknown Unknown” these days I enter bookshops looking for books that I don’t know exist. I found more than my fair share on this expedition.  For reference: The Burglar Caught by A Skeleton, The Girl who Couldn’t Read, and The Year of Reading Dangerously.  However, this is the book I would have bought, 

Unknown Unknowns


had I read the book next to it. Weimar was the unknown unknown I purchased last time I was in a bookstore. Weimar Thought, now a known unknown, must remain so for the time being.

As it turned out, I came away with two books that have long been on my wishlist.


The Death of Lomond Friel’s moment came because it is set in St Andrews, and I was reminded of Pure, while I was sitting enjoying my tea.  I spotted a signed first edition in the locked cabinet.  Budget wouldn’t run to £85 but it could stretch to the price of a signed paperback.  Wrapped to maintain its pristine condition, I may add. 

When my source told me of this fantastic bookshop, located 10 minutes from his work, “Oh dear” was my response.  He knew exactly what I meant. Fortunately Topping & Co is 2 hours away from me, though I don’t think this will be the first and last time I pass through its doors …

A final (?) lingering look …



An event including Alexander McCall-Smith is always entertaining.  This particular event was exceptional.

November 13 is Robert Louis Stevenson Day in Edinburgh – an annual celebration of the life of the iconic Edinburgh author.  It’s a celebration that tends to run over because the event I attended was scheduled for the 21st.

Stevenson and McCall-Smith were/are both members of the Faculty of Advocates and attendees were assembled  in Laigh Hall, Parliament House.

Pre-event drinks were accompanied by a recital of classical music.

The Recital

Thereafter, we made our way downstairs to the Library of the Faculty of Advocates for the main event during which McCall-Smith narrated the story of Stevenson’s life, accompanied by two very talented Bar members.  Anna Poole, soprano, and James Mure, baritone, performed a selection of Stevenson’s poetry set to music  (These lawyers certainly have hidden talents.) They were accompanied by John Cameron on piano and Jane Condie who provided visuals.

The Team


I came away enchanted.  As did Sir Walter Scott

Great Scott! That was good!


All proceeds of the evening were donated to the Abbotsford Trust, which maintains Sir Walter Scott’s home in the Scottish Borders.

The first thing I did on arriving home was to ebay myself a Folio Edition of Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse, which I have since read in full.  My enchantment continues and I have decided to add Stevenson to my completist reading list.  Another project for 2015.

The evening also served as a reminder that this is the year to read Scott’s Waverley.  200 years since its publicaton.  I’ve started …  more to follow.

And so, to the final piece of #germanlitmonth for 2014.

I suspect GLM IV will go down in the annals of GLM history.  It was truly extraordinary.  The evidence is here for all to see and enjoy.  I’m sure it lived up to and surpassed the expectations of the reader who wrote these lovely words of appreciation to Caroline and me at the beginning of the month.

Although I’m not a blogger and can’t participate, I look forward to reading absolutely each and every post for the German Literature Month. Being a retired professor of contemporary European literature, I’m concerned that these books that were so much a part of my teaching career and reading life would eventually be forgotten. Nice to know that you all are keeping many of my authors “current.” How I enjoy reading participants’ books choices and reviews !! And the mixture of current, contemporary and historical is terrific.

And before I forget, German Literature Month was also name-checked in the autumn edition of In Other Words, the journal of  The British Centre of Literary Translation.

Then there was the after-party hosted by Mel U at The Reading Life .. And what an extravaganza that has been.  Are you still standing? 

Regretfully though, it’s time to open that last magnum to celebrate the prize-winners.  Moet would be nice but the final bubbles have been produced by a resourceful heroine of Grimm extraction with a successful second career as a vintner. Red Riding Hood is more than a pretty face and a bright cape.

Glasses to the ready. 

Caroline has already announced that Thomas of Mytwostotinki wins best post with his magnificent entry on Oostende 1936, Sommer der Freundschaft.  It is now my pleasure to announce the winner of the pick and mix.  A number of participants clocked up points in double digits.  The clear winner, though, with more than 30 qualifying posts, is none other than the host of our GLM finale party.  Ladies and gentlemen, please toast our host, Mel U!

(Your prizes from Oxford University Press will be with you as soon as they can tear themselves away from the Venus in furs party ….).




 GLM IV was simply stunning.  Well done and thank you to all.

Arjouni: Happy Birthday, Turk! 1 Bachmann: The Princess of Kagran 1 Three Paths To The Lake 1 2 Baum: Grand Hotel 1 Becker: Jacob The Liar 1 The Wall and Other Stories 1 2 Bernhard: Concrete 1 Old Masters 1 Three Novellas 1 Wittgenstein’s Nephew 1 Böll: The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum 1 The Safety Net 1 Bronsky: Just Call Me Superhero 1 Canetti: Auto da Fé 1 Cantieni: The Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons 1 2 Capus: A Price to Pay 1 Chamisso: Peter Schlemiel 1 Döblin: Berlin Alexanderplatz 1 Dörrie: Das Blaue Kleid 1 Dürrenmatt: The Inspector Barlach Mysteries 1 Erpenbeck: The End of Days 1 Ewers: The Spider 1 Fallada: Alone in Berlin 1 Fauser: Raw Material 1 Fontane: Effi Briest 1 Irretrievable 1 Trials and Tribulations 1 Franck: West 1 Gaponenko: Who is Martha? 1 Glavinic: Night Work 1 Gstrein: Winters in The South 1 Glattauer: Forever Yours 1 2 Goethe: Elective Affinities 1 Haas: Brenner and God 1 Haffner: Blood Brothers 1 Hahn: Shorter Days 1 2 Handke: The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick 1 Hardenberg: Poetry 1 Hermann: Aller Liebe Anfang 1 Herrndorf: Why We Took The Car 1 Hesse: Gertrude 1 Siddhartha 1 Steppenwolf 1 The Hesse/Mann Letters 1 Heym: The Lunatic 1 Hoffmann: Little Zaches, Great Zinnober 1 Mademoiselle de Scuderi 1 The Golden Pot 1 The Sandman 1 2 Hotschnig: Leonardo’s Hands 1 Leonardo’s Room 1 Maybe This Time 1 Jelinek: Greed 1 Kafka: The Trial 1 Kästner: Going to The Dogs 1 The Parent Trap 1 Kehlmann: F 1 2 Me and Kaminski 1  Keilson: Comedy In A Low Key 1 Life goes on 1 Keun: After Midnight 1 Kleist: The Power of Music 1 Köstering: Goetheruh 1 Krien: Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything 1 Kumpfmüller: The Glory of Life 1 2 3 Lewitscharoff: Blumenberg 1 Lüscher: Barbarian Spring 1 Mann Heinrich: A Crime 1 Mann Thomas: Buddenbrooks 1 2 Death in Venice 1 Mario amd The Magician 1 The Black Swan 1 The Hesse/Mann Letters 1 Tonio Kröger 1 Müller: The Passport 1 Neuhaus: Big Bad Wolf 1 Nöstlinger: Fly Away Home 1 Peltzer: Part of the Solution 1 Rathmann: Young Light 1 Rilke: In English Translation 1  The Seamstress 1 Roth: Beware of Pity 1 Flight Without End 1 2 3 Rebellion 1 2 The Hundred Days 1 The Legend of the Holy Drinker 1 2 The Radetzky March 1 The Wandering Jews 1 Viennese Short Stories 1 Weights and Measures 1 What I Saw 1 Ruge: In Times of Fading Light 1 2 Sachs: O Chimneys 1 Sebald: The Emigrants 1  Scheffel: Ekkehard – A Tale of the 10th Century 1 Schiller: The Robbers 1 Schlink: Flights of Love 1 2  Homecoming 1 Schnitzler: La Ronde 1 Schulze: Adam and Evelyn 1 Seghers: Transit 1 2 Sendker: The Art of Hearing Heartbeats 1 Setz: Indigo 1 Stamm: Agnes  1 2 All Days are Night 1 Stifter: Indian Summer 1 Rock Crystal 1 Storm: Immensee 1 Journey to A Hallig 1 Suter: The Chef 1 Tellkamp: The Tower 1 2 Tucholsky: Castle Gripsholm 1 Vanderbeke: The Mussel Feast 1 de Velasco: Tiger Milk 1 Vermes: Look Who’s Back 1 2 von Sacher-Masoch: Venus in Furs 1 Wagner: Silence 1 The Winter of The Lions 1 Walser: Kleist in Thun 1  The Walk 1 Two Feuilletons 1 Wassermann: My First Wife 1 Wolf: Exchanging Glances 1 The Quest for Christa T 1 Zürn: Victory of The Children 1 Zweig: Amok 1 An Incident at Lake Geneva 1 Burning Secret 1 Fantastic Night 1 Fear 1 2 Forgotten Dreams 1 In The Snow 1 Letter from an Unknown Woman 1 The Governess 1 The Star of The Forest 1 Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of A Woman 1 Twilight 1


Miscellaneous and non-fiction

Aust: Baader-Meinhof The Inside Story of the R.A.F. 1 Franzen: The Kraus Project 1 Meet The Translator: Mike Mitchell 1 Schwartz (ed): The Emergence of Memory – Conversations with W G Sebald 1 Timm: In My Brother’s Shadow 1 Valzey: Born in the GDR 1 Weidermann: Oostende 1936, Sommer der Freundschaft 1 Wizorek: Weil ein #Aufschrei nicht reicht 1 Ziegler: Forbidden, Ostracised, Banned 1

And finally: The Post Event Party! 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 with The Prize-Giving Ceremony (to follow at 8:00 pm tonight).

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2014


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