Thursday, 27 November 2014

'Die Ausgewanderten' ('The Emigrants') by W.G. Sebald (Review)

Of the plans I made for German Literature Month, today's book was the one most set in concrete.  Having read (and loved) two books by W.G. Sebald already, I was eager to try another of his (unfortunately small) back catalogue, this time a book of four connected stories.  The setting is a little different, but there's no mistaking the style - he was a writer who definitely had a way with words...

*****
Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants) was one of Sebald's earlier works of fiction, a book where a familiar narrator tells us stories of people forced to leave their homelands at some point during the twentieth century.  The four sections each focus on a different person, all of them someone from the narrator's life.  There's a man the narrator rented a house from in East Anglia; his former primary school teacher; a great-uncle who emigrated to the US; and an artist he met during his time as a research student in Manchester.  Over 350 pages, we learn that these men are linked by their experiences - and are representative of the fates of millions of people throughout Europe in the twentieth century...

Die Ausgewanderten is another Sebaldian trip through time, four excellent stories accompanied by the usual black-and-white photos.  For the first-time reader, one of the main puzzles is working out whether the book is fact or fiction.  These are stories, but you could be forgiven for thinking it's all out of the Sebald family archives - which is not to say that it's completely made up.  The ideas are obviously close to the writer's heart.

The main theme of the book is the effect of war on Europe and, in particular, its Jewish population.  Each of the four protagonists is affected in some way, with most being forced to leave their home, and their fate is representative of the wider suffering of their people, a suffering (as shown with the narrator's Great-Uncle Ambros) which leaves its mark:
"Nichtsdestoweniger erweckte er, selbst wenn er nur am Fenster stand und hinausblickte, stets den Eindruck, als sei er von einem heillosen Leid erfüllt."
p.162 (Fischer Verlag, 2013)
"Nevertheless, he constantly aroused, even when merely standing at the window and gazing out, the impression that he was suffused with incurable suffering." *** (my translation)
These examples of the Jewish diaspora show the reader that the pain caused by displacement never really goes away. 

The suffering takes its toll, and the four men are gradually worn down by a life that shouldn't have been theirs.  As each story nears its end we learn of the inevitable consequences of their hurt, whether it be self-harm, deliberate isolation or suicide, with each of the men turning away from the world.  On the whole they prefer nature to the company of other people, hiding as far away as possible, in hunting lodges, abandoned buildings or the mountains.

The narrator is a curious researcher, drawn to find out more about the figures from the past, each fact leading him on, drawing him further into the story.  This communicates itself to the reader in the way the stories lead on to other stories, giving us third- or even fourth-hand information (and the rather blurred lines between fact and fiction).  Whether we ever really get to the heart of the matter is another question entirely...

While the Jewish question is the obvious starting point of the book, another major theme
is homosexuality, overt in at least one story, latent in all the others.  All of the main characters are men who seem uncomfortable in the presence of women (even the man who's married to one), and there's a hint of a suggestion that a rejection of a so-called 'normal' sexual orientation is another way of turning against the world.  This is a topic which has been handled at length by the academic and writer Helen Finch, in her book Sebald's Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life, and while I've only read summaries of her work, having finished Die Ausgewanderten, I can definitely see where she's coming from.

While there are four stories, they're of differing lengths with the final two being much longer than the first sections.  I enjoyed them all, but I found the third part, about the great-uncle, to be the weakest of the four; it was far too long for what it was and was overburdened by too many diary extracts.  However, once Sebald gets back to the narrator's voice, the language, as always, is stunning.  It's the usual tale of meticulously constructed sentences with a sprinkling of slightly formal, old-fashioned language (e.g. obzwar, demungeachtet, wenn ich ihrer ansichtig wurde).  This old-fashioned tone works well here, adding to the effect of a man unearthing history. 

A tale of four men, then?  Well, no - I'd say five.  You see, the fifth of the 'emigrants' is the narrator himself (i.e. Sebald...), and this becomes obvious when he makes a trip to Germany towards the end of the book in an attempt to find his lost home.  It's an endeavour that was never likely to succeed:
"Obgleich ich während meines mehrtägigen Aufenthalts in Kissingen und in dem von seinem einstmaligen Charakter nicht das geringste mehr verratenden Steinach zur Genüge beschäftigt gewesen bin mit meinen Nachforschungen und meiner wie immer nur mühevoll vorangehenden Schreibarbeit, spürte ich doch in zunehmendem Maß, daß die rings mich umgebende Geistesverarmung und Erinnerungslosigkeit der Deutschen, das Geschick, mit dem man alles bereinigt hatte, mir Kopf und Nerven anzugreifen begann." (pp.332/3)
"Although, during my stay of several days in Kissingen and in Steinach, which revealed not the slightest hint of its former character, I was satisfactorily engaged with my research and my writing, which, as always, was progressing only with great difficulty, I increasingly felt that the surrounding intellectual poverty and inability to remember of the German people, the skill with which everything had been whitewashed, was beginning to play on my nerves." ***
Sometimes, it's just not possible to go home...

*****
An English version (The Emigrants) is available from Vintage Books in Michael Hulse's translation (and having laboured for an age to produce the tiny (inadequate) quotation just above, I take my hat off to him...).

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

'Blood Brothers' by Ernst Haffner (Review)

Today's German Literature Month post sees us taking the bus back to Berlin in the early 1930s.  It's a story of life on the streets for a gang of young men trying to get by, and it's certainly a fascinating piece.  However, what's even more intriguing is the backstory of the book and the author, a man of mystery if ever there was one.  If that was the good news, here's some bad news - if you want to read it (in English), I'm afraid you're going to have to wait for quite a while...

*****
Ernst Haffner's Blood Brothers (translated by Michael Hofmann, review copy courtesy of Other Press - released on the 3rd of March, 2015) begins with a group of young men in Berlin.  They're part of a generation growing up after the First World War without parents, and most of them have run away from state homes for orphans - being under the age of twenty-one, they are deemed unable to fend for themselves.

Which, of course, couldn't be further from the truth - these boys are extremely resourceful.  However, they're also young and careless, and their lives are spent chasing a few groschen for a bit of fun, falling prey to the temptation of helping fate a little by bending (and then breaking) the law.  The heady feeling of getting one over on society is  a rush the boys enjoy.  However, the reader always has a feeling that it'll all end in tears...

Blood Brothers caused a minor sensation in Germany recently, and the story behind the book explains the interest.  It was originally released in 1932 under the title Jugend auf der Landstraße Berlin (Youths on the Country Road to Berlin), and it was rereleased last year under the new title Blutsbrüder (Blood Brothers).  Novels portraying life during the interwar period are always popular, and this one, showing life in Berlin immediately prior to the Nazi rise to power, was a big hit.

What we see perhaps helps explain the attraction of the far-right at the time as it's often a journey through a sordid underworld of Dickensian squalor:
"Each of them counts out his due, and is then permitted without further ado to seek out a place for the night.  A wretched oil lamp sputters.  Mould thrives on a few dirty scraps of wallpaper, and where the straw mattresses are laid out, sharp eyes might make out numerous disgusting bloodstains from squashed bedbugs."
p.65 (Other Press, 2015)
There are dingy shops as fronts for illegal businesses, 'warming halls' where the homeless are permitted to spend a few precious hours out of the cold and, as described above, the boarding houses where, for a few pfennigs, the down and out can rest with a roof over their heads.

The Blood Brothers of the title are a group of boys from all over the country, held together by Jonny, a clever schemer with big plans.  When a newcomer, Willi, a friend of Ludwig (one of the gang), arrives in Berlin, we begin to be shown the choices the boys have.  It may seem as if the boys have it good at times, but it's (quite literally) a choice of selling body or soul.  Jonny's followers can either join in his lucrative schemes or look for other, warmer ways to earn a mark or two.  It can be a hard life, but the Blood Brothers make sure they have fun, with fighting, drinking and the odd prostitute or two making their lives worth living.  When money comes in, it soon flows out quickly enough, but there's always more to be found if you know where to look...

There is a serious side to the Blood Brothers, though.  One of the main issues the book deals with is the importance of a support network in tough times, especially in a society with no real safety net:
"Is there another way?  Work, honest to goodness work?  Even if such a miracle came to pass and someone came along asking "Will you work for me?" it would be over as soon as it was asked!  The papers!  The official confirmation that so-and-so, born on such-and-such a date is allowed to run around freely and isn't condemned to be in a welfare home... This confirmation will break anyone's neck because it hasn't been provided.  Because they aren't allowed to run around freely.  They are welfare kids, liable to be locked away, even if they've done nothing wrong!" (p.145)
It's little wonder that, given the choice between living on the streets and suffering in what is little more than a prison, many choose a life of petty crime...
 
Of course, there are parallels with other books set around the same era.  One that immediately springs to mind is Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz (a much more literary version of the struggles of the poor in interwar Berlin).  Another German writer who trod the same territory is Erich Maria Remarque, especially in his novel Drei Kameraden (Three Comrades).  However, in many ways I'm reminded more of his most famous novel, Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front).  Why?  Well, it has a similar theme of young men banding together in a time of crisis, but also the same flow of it all being fun until, suddenly, times turn sour...

The text is in the capable hands of renowned translator Michael Hofmann, and it's an enjoyable read with a rather idiosyncratic style.  There's a strong narratorial voice which, while not intrusive, is certainly ever-present, and you can't help but be struck by some of the interesting choices the translator makes, particularly regarding vocabulary choice.  There's a definite decision (in my early version, at least) to go with dated British lexis (e.g. rozzers, chum, borstals, knackered, do one (run away), spiv, flying squad) - I'll be very interested to see if those all make it into the final version ;)

Blood Brothers isn't the most demanding book, but it's definitely enjoyable, especially if you're interested in this era (and for me the interwar era is much more intriguing than the war that followed).  Added interest is provided by the fact that the book was one of the many banned and burnt by the Nazis in 1933.  But what about the author?  Well, Haffner was actually a social worker who knew what he was talking about, and consequently fell foul of the Nazi regime.  Very little is actually known of his whereabouts after the early 1940s, as he disappeared from view, presumably to meet an unfortunate end.  His legacy, though is still around in this book - it's definitely something to remember him by...

Sunday, 23 November 2014

'Mujong' (The Heartless') by Yi Kwang-su (Review)

We're back with another slight detour from German Literature Month to Korea, and this time we're looking at a more classic book.  Today's post concerns an early modern K-Lit novel from one of the big names of the time.  It's a book that has lofty ambitions to cover a wide range of societal issues - even if it doesn't always hit the target...

*****
Yi Kwang-su's 'Mujong: The Heartless', translated by Ann Sung-Hi Lee) dates from 1917 (which is probably as far back as I've gone in my Korean reading so far).  The main character of the piece is Yi Hyong-sik, a young teacher in Seoul, whose days are spent pouring his energies into teaching his students and avoiding the temptations of the outside world.  He's a shy, chaste innocent young man, so when he is one day visited by a young woman, garbed as a kisaeng (Korean Geisha), he's rather surprised - especially when she claims she knows him.

The young woman turns out to be Pak Yong-ch'ae, the daughter of Hyong-sik's dead mentor, and having kept her innocence intact despite her years entertaining drunken men, she has come to find the man her father recommended as her husband before his death.  So, is there to be a happy ending for Hyong-sik and Yong-ch'ae?  It's rather unlikely.  This is no fairy tale, and these two young naive people have other destinies...

Let's be clear about something from the start; Mujong is not a book for the average reader to pick up and flick through.  It's a story of an alien place and time, written in a rather dry style for the most part, which may well put many readers off.  I've encountered Yi's work twice this year already (The Soil, Gasil), and he doesn't have the most endearing of styles - calling him didactic is probably being generous ;)

However, if you can get past this, Mujong is an entertaining story.  While the focus is mainly on Hyong-sik and Yong-ch'ae, there is a love triangle of sorts as the young teacher falls for the attractions of his private English student, Kim Son-hyong.  She is a fresh-faced eighteen-year-old (in Korean years...) and makes for a striking contrast to Yong-ch'ae and her kisaeng past.  Hyong-sik, thus far pure of body, is tempted both by his young student (who is later offered to him in marriage) and the beautiful Yong-ch'ae, a woman he feels bound to marry from gratitude to his deceased mentor.

This is very much a book of awakenings, with all of the major characters beginning to think about themselves, and the society they live in, for the first time.  One major awakening is obviously their growing awareness of their sexuality: Yong-ch'ae has been saving herself for Hyong-sik, a deluded fantasy which might yet prove to be dangerous; Hyong-sik is just starting to realise that there's more to life than books.  Perhaps the most innocent of the three, though, is Son-hyong, a young girl who has led a very sheltered life thus far:
"She was the same as when she had been born - the same as when she had been organically and biologically produced.  She was like a machine that had been kept in a storage shed and never actually been used.  She was not yet a person."
p.136 (Cornell East Asia Series, 2005)
Now, with marriage imminent, she's forced to confront the realities of life, including the prospect of physical relations with a man she doesn't really know...

Mujong focuses on social awakenings too, with the book being as much a critique of Korea and its people as the story of a love triangle.  In fact, Yi (through Hyong-sik), frequently uses his opportunity to criticise neo-Confucian norms, cultural ideas which are holding Korea back:
"Hyong-sik believed that while all human beings were the same by nature, an individual or society could be improved and uplifted with the effort of that society or individual.  The women, however, believed that humans had no responsibility for what happened in life.  Human beings just lived life as it happened, with no improvement or reform through human will.  This is how Koreans view life!" (p.209)
One concrete aspect of this fatalism is the failing school system, where cronyism and ignorance need removing so that the country can modernise after the western model.  It's high time that unnecessary customs and beliefs are swept away.

The major area Yi sets his sights on is young arranged marriages, a topic the writer had personal experience of.  Mujong features several examples of unhappy marriages which lead to dismal lives, with concubines, kisaeng and suicide more prevalent than loving couples.  Modern readers will be dismayed by the way in which several disturbing scenes (including female oppression and rape) are glossed over matter of factly, but in many ways this is a book which attempts to fight the feminist cause.  While offensive in parts by 21st-Century standards, Mujong does raise the issue of the way women are treated, in particular insisting on treating the scorned kisaeng like any other woman.

Mujong is a book of its time in other ways too.  It's divided into 126 short sections, reflecting its origins as a serialised newspaper novel, very much as early modern Japanese novels appeared (a fact which makes it a little repetitive at times, as serialised works often are).  In fact, there are other similarities to early J-Lit.  The way Yi uses internal monologues, with the characters going back and forth in their agonised deliberations, is reminiscent of Natsume Soseki's Light and Dark.  While nowhere near as insightful as the Japanese writer's work, Yi's novel can show some surprisingly nuanced psychology at times.

This edition of the novel is actually an academic one, a translation bundled with an extended introduction with information about both the author and the book.  While I appreciate Ann Sung-Hi Lee's efforts, I have to say that it wasn't amazingly illuminating, erring on the side of academic appropriacy over interesting reading.  And, in truth, that pretty much sums up the book as a whole.  As mentioned above, it's certainly not for everyone, but serious K-Lit aficionados looking to broaden their knowledge of the period should definitely check it out :)

Thursday, 20 November 2014

'Mario und der Zauberer' ('Mario and the Magician') by Thomas Mann (Review)

Today's German Literature Month post is a further diversion from my original plans, a book I rediscovered while browsing the shelves.  A while back, I reviewed Thomas Mann's Tonio Kröger (a story I've read many a time), and I meant to get around to reading the other story included in the book.  Fast forward three years (!), and it's time to rectify that oversight ;)

*****
Mario und der Zauberer is a later piece, dating from 1930, and it's another excellent story.  The narrator and his family are on holiday on the Italian coast, and initially this is a very light-hearted affair.  Mann (or his alter-ego) relates a story of holiday mishaps and cultural misunderstandings in the sun, the kind of things that have happened to us all at some point.

One evening, later in the holiday, the family decides to attend a show given by a magician.  However, what starts as a bit of fun turns more serious when the star turn arrives on stage; the magician is not quite what they thought he was.  Little do the narrator and his family know that they are about to bear witness to an explosive evening...

Mario und der Zauberer is a fascinating story, a two-part tale by a writer in complete command of his art.  The first part is laconic, laid-back, a happy holiday in the sun, enriched by the humour of Germans abroad.  Shortly after the family's arrival, they are forced to change their accommodation when their daughter's annoying cough frightens the rich neighbours at the hotel:
"Das Wesen dieser Krankheit ist wenig geklärt, dem Aberglauben hier mancher Spielraum gelassen, und so haben wir es unserer eleganten Nachbarin nie verargt, daß sie der weit verbreiteten Meining anhing, der Keuch husten sei akustich ansteckend, und einfach für ihre Kleinen das schlechte Beispiel fürchtete."
p.77 (Fischer Verlag, 2011)

"The nature of this illness is still rather unclear, leaving superstition ample room to play, and thus we never held it against our elegant neighbour that she clung to the wide-spread opinion that whooping cough is acoustically contagious, and that she merely feared her little one would follow this poor example." *** (my translation)
Later, there's more cultural confusion when the daughter runs naked for all of ten seconds on the beach causing uproar amongst the locals.  I'm afraid this isn't Lübeck any more...

It's a wonderfully entertaining, elegant narrative; however, slowly, but surely, the mood begins to darken.  A gradual change in the weather heralds a shift in tone, and it's at this point that the news of the forthcoming entertainment starts to spread.  As the storms close in, enter Cipolla the magician, a hypnotist who calls himself magician to get around laws banning this kind of entertainment.

On the night of the performance, Mann builds up the tension by dragging out the long wait for the main act (the poor punctual Germans fail to realise what the Italians think about starting on time...).  What ensues is dark and grotesque, a complete train wreck, as the 'magician' manipulates his audience.  At this point, you may well be wondering who the titular Mario is, and that's no secret - he's a local waiter, a man the family sees every day.
Why is he in the title?  Well, to find that out, you'll just have to read the book...

The story is actually based on an event Mann and his family witnessed while on holiday, with a dramatised ending, of course.  However, it's rather difficult not to read more into it.  In 1930, Italy was already under Mussolini's sway, and Germany was just a few years away from the start of the Hitler era.  The magician, with his strange appearance and brusque manner, is an obvious allegory for fascism, an unpleasant character with a talent for taking away people's free will.

The audience go along with the show, applauding wildly, but the narrator is simply stunned, regretting his decision not to break the holiday off sooner:
"Soll man 'abreisen', wenn das Leben sich ein bißchen unheimlich, nicht ganz geheuer oder etwas peinlich und kränkend anläßt?  Nein doch, man soll bleiben, soll sich das ansehen und sich dem aussetzen, gerade dabei gibt es vielleicht etwas zu lernen." (p.85)

"Should you 'up sticks' whenever life begins to get a little strange, not quite right or somewhat embarrassing and offensive?  Of course not, you have to stay, you have to keep watching and stick it out, in this way you might learn something." ***
This is the narrator as horrified onlooker (the presence of his children only makes it worse) among a pan-European (allegorical...) audience of holidaymakers.  It's not a stretch to see it as foreshadowing impending political disaster...

Mario und der Zauberer is an excellent story that works on multiple levels.  Like the magician, Mann has the ability to draw the reader in and keep them enthralled, even as the events make them want to look away.  A clever story, it's one which leaves a strong impression long after you've finished reading it - definitely a worthy inclusion in my GLM reading :)

*****
There is a translation out there, by H.T. Lowe Porter, in a collection of stories entitled Mario and the Magician (Vintage Books).

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

'Irrungen, Wirrungen' ('Trials and Tribulations') by Theodor Fontane (Review)

As you may have seen, I did have some rather detailed plans for German Literature Month, but the best-laid plans of mice and men do tend to be deviated from.  While I've read some of the books I mentioned, others will have to wait - and then, of course, there are those books which came from nowhere (like today's book...).  So, who do you have to thank for today's choice?  Well, two people - but we'll get to that later...

*****
Theodor Fontane's Irrungen, Wirrungen (Trials and Tribulations) begins in Berlin during the glorious summer of 1875.  Young seamstress Lene Nimptsch is enjoying the company of a noble cavalry officer, Botho von Rienäcker, after a chance encounter on a boating trip.  It's all a bit of summer loving, a harmless flirtation, but gradually both Lene and Botho learn to appreciate their partner more.

Botho is a gentleman who is genuinely attracted to Lene, and he starts to fall in love with the attractive commoner.  However, he's from a poor family, one which has fallen in its fortunes due to mismanagement of their estates, leaving him (and others) under no illusion as to his duty to marry into money:
"Rienäcker steht vor einer scharfen Ecke."
  "Und vor welcher?"
  "Er soll heiraten."
  "Und das nennen Sie eine scharfe Ecke?  Ich bitte Sie, Wedell, Rienäcker steht vor einer viel schärferen: Er hat 9000 jährlich und gibt 12000 aus, und das ist immer die schärfste aller Ecken, jedenfalls schärfer als die Heiratsecke."

"Rienäcker's in a sticky situation."
  "What?"
  "He has to get married."
  "And you call that a sticky situation?  I beg you, Wedell, Rienäcker is about to be in a much stickier one:  He has 9,000 a year and spends 12,000, and that's the stickiest of all situations, in any case much stickier than marriage." *** (my translation)
Lene is well aware of this and is content to enjoy her days in the sun - but what will happen when the summer is over?

While I'm a big fan of Fontane, he wasn't on my original list, and there are two people to blame for my trying another of his books this month.  The first is Lizzy, whose great review of Unwiederbringlich (Irretrievable), plus her readalong of Effi Briest three years ago, got me into Fontane in the first place.  The second is Tom, the Amateur Reader himself, whose series of reviews on Unwiederbringlich early in November had me itching to try another of Fontane's books.  And very happy I am too to have been swayed as Irrungen, Wirrungen is a great bit of G-Lit comfort reading :)

As Tom discussed (and as I've mentioned before), Fontane is almost unique among 19th-Century German writers for his ability to write rounded characters.  For anyone who has read much of Anthony Trollope's work, Fontane's novels will be rather familiar, with their focus on the romantic trials and tribulations of the upper-middle and noble classes.  In fact, if you strip away the superfluous court case in Trollope's Lady Anna (my most recent Trollope read), the two novels have very serious themes.

What we have here is a nice young nobleman from a poor family, one who needs to revive the fortunes of his house, and at first it seems as if he's destined to break Lene's heart.  The truth is, though, that she knows the score right from the start:
"Wie du mich verkennst.  Glaube mir, daß ich dich habe, diese Stunde habe, das ist mein Glück.  Was daraus wird, das Kümmert mich nicht.  Eines Tages bist du weggeflogen..."

"How little you know me.  Believe me, that I have you, that I have this hour, that makes me happy.  What the future holds doesn't concern me.  One day, you'll be gone..." ***
Lene is simply happy to know a few short months of love, fully prepared to get on with her life once the autumn has arrived...

Many of Botho's officer friends also have their flirtations in Berlin, but Fontane makes Lene stand out among these lower-class figures.  She's charming, well-mannered and intelligent, more than a match for the aristocratic soldier, and it would be hard for the modern reader to find anything to object to in her behaviour.  However, this wasn't the case for the original readers - in fact, Fontane was roundly condemned for the sympathetic treatment of his heroine.

For much of the novel, Irrungen, Wirrungen is played with a fairly light touch.  One example of the humour is the comic figure of Lene's motherly friend, Frau Dörr, a statuesque figure who accompanies the young couple on many of their early walks.  Another is mentioned in a friend's discussion of the Rienäcker's (blonde) intended bride when doubt is cast upon Botho's intentions towards her:
"Rienäcker ist nämlich seit einiger Zeit in einen anderen Farbenton, und zwar ins Aschfarbene, gefallen..."

"You see, Rienäcker has recently acquired a liking for another colour, namely ash..." ***
Which makes little sense in English unless you are told that the German name for Cinderella is Aschenpüttel!  This is just one example of a lot of sparkling conversation, and the first part, in particular, feels almost like a play at times.

Later, however, the story becomes more serious as Fontane explores the aftermath of the relationship.  There's nothing predictable about the story though, and the handling of both sides is surprisingly nuanced - I doubt many readers will guess exactly how the story ends.  It's a novel which is never dull, an enjoyable look at regret and reality, romance and responsibility.

On finishing, I was surprised to realise that this was actually the sixth of Fontane's books I'd read.  One thing I can say with certainty is that it won't be my last. Just like Trollope, Teddy F. is a writer I can turn to when I want some guaranteed quality comfort reading :)

*****
There is a translation floating around, but reviews suggest that it's very old and not well edited: Trials and Tribulations, translated by Katharine Royce (available in several cheapish editions because of lapse of copyright).

Update: After Lizzy pointed out a newer edition (Angel Classics) and translation (by Peter James Bowman - see comments), I've also noticed that the same book is now available in the Penguin Classics range as On Tangled Paths :)

Another Update:  Tom has pointed out a bilingual edition from Quillcox Press!  This one is called Diversions and Entanglements and is translated by Curt Swanson - Irrungen, Wirrungen indeed...

Sunday, 16 November 2014

'River of Fire and Other Stories' by O Chong-hui (Review)

Today I'm taking a short break from German Literature Month to return to my major project for the year, my self-education in the world of Korean literature, and this review looks at more work from an excellent writer I discovered this year.  It's a wonderful collection of stories, definitely a book I'd recommend - and it's rather pretty too :)

*****
O Chong-hui's River of Fire and Other Stories (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press and Australian distributor Footprint Books) is a nice selection of stories from a writer described in the afterword as the current matriarch of female Korean writing.  This collection of nine stories is a kind of retrospective, a journey through her writing career, from her very first attempt at being published in the late sixties right up to a story from the mid-nineties.

It begins with 'The Toy Shop Woman', O's debut piece and one which won the 1968 New Writers Award.  The story follows a young, emotionally-scarred woman as she raids a classroom for money and objects to sell, before walking to an old toy shop.  As is to become O's trademark, the story slowly widens the scope, allowing the reader to see what has brought her to this point, a story of family hardship - and a collection of dolls.  A clever, female-centred, multi-layered tale, it's very different to a lot of Korean writing

This female focus continues in the following stories, each of which features a housewife trapped in a dull relationship.  In 'One Spring Day', a woman waits for a husband to return to their run-down home, a place of both comfort and boredom:
"Peace filled our home, imbued my relationship with Sungu, a peace absolute and invulnerable in which no leaf on a tree could be disturbed.  But what had I sacrificed for it?  Our relationship was like stagnant water - stale, peaceful."
'One Spring Day', p.18 (Columbia University Press, 2012)
Things are very similar in 'A Portrait of Magnolias', in which a woman with a troubled past attempts to move on from her cheating husband.  Sadly, post-separation life is no better than the sad time she spent as a housewife.

In the title story, a couple find themselves trapped in a working-class existence, and while the wife does her best to keep things together, the man is only too eager to escape each night, unable to stand life in the apartment:
Even though he took an artisan's pride in his work, I was surprised at the loathing I detected in his voice.
  "All I ever hear is the machine, whether I'm at home or on the bus.  I feel like the pedals are attached to my ears.  Sometimes I think I'm going crazy.  Your breathing at night - that gets me thinking of the machine too.  It really bothers me - I don't want to be stuck in a cage like a squirrel turning a wheel for the rest of my life."
'River of Fire', p.59
The pressure of monotonous work is crushing him, and his only outlet for the stress is a rather unusual one...

A later story, 'Morning Star', has a slightly different style.  It relates a night out with five old university friends, reunited after years apart.  The five are now middle-aged, each with their own families, jobs and disappointments, and the evening on the town, followed by a night spent drinking at home, allows the five to see how their lives have changed over the years - not always for the better.  O switches the viewpoint between the characters, allowing the reader to see what each thinks of the others (it's not always positive).

It's in the longer, later stories that O really impresses, though.  The broader canvas lets her develop the stories at a slower pace, also allowing her to insert a more detailed back story.  In addition, these later, longer stories can be slightly edgier and more political.  'Lake P'aro', a story I first read earlier this year, is a perfect example of this.  A middle-aged woman goes on a journey to a recently drained lake, seeking inspiration for her writing.  This pleasant excursion is gradually overtaken by flashbacks to the woman's life in America, where her family moved after her teacher husband was fired for reasons unknown.  The different strata of Korean history are shown in the buildings uncovered in the lake - rocks from the Kingdom of Koguryo, rice fields from the colonial period, roads from the military regime.  The moral of the story seems to be that all political systems are eventually outlasted by the stones...

This idea of the contrast between present-day life and the distant past appears again in 'Fireworks'.  This one is a particularly good story describing a day in the life of a family, a day on which an event celebrating their town's 'promotion' in status to a city is being held.  I loved the starting scene in a classroom, a beautiful description of a lazy sunny afternoon where the students struggle to maintain interest in the teacher's dull, date-heavy history lesson:
The teacher rose and methodically erased the blackboard.
 "Yi Yongjo, tell us about the founding of Koguryo."
 Yongjo stared at the blank surface, desperately racking his memory.  All he could remember was what he had read in a comic book - the story of Prince Hodong and Princess Nangnang, a magic drum that boomed in the absence of any human touch, and General Yon'gaesomun, who wore half a dozen daggers, who when mounting his horse used a servant's back rather than stirrups.
'Fireworks', p.98
Poor Yongjo has a preference for stories over dry dates, and it's this focus on real life over 'important' historical facts which permeates this charming story.

Earlier this year, I was able to try more of O's work: her story 'Wayfarer' in the Modern Korean Fiction collection, and several stories (including the excellent 'Spirit on the Wind') which you can find online for free.  She's very much a story writer, having written just the one short novel as far as I'm aware, and the forty-page story/novella seems to be where she's most comfortable, and at her best.  Over the course of her career, she's become a highly influential writer (and a very good one!), amassing an impressive body of stories concerning the role of women in society and the trauma of a country still healing its scars...

At this point, though, it's only fair to give a special mention to the Fultons, who are supreme translators in the field of Korean literature in translation.  As a married couple working together, it's tempting to compare them to the Pevear and Volkhonsky translation team; however, unlike P & V, the Fultons are bringing untranslated works into English and not just making American versions of Russian classics which have already been translated.  In addition to translating O Chong-hui's stories, Bruce and Ju-Chan have also worked their magic on writers like Ch'ae Yun and Cho Se-hui However, it's with O that they've really made a mark :)

A great writer, great translators and a beautiful-looking book - it all makes for an excellent addition to my K-Lit library.  O is definitely a writer I want to try more from, but sadly there's not all that much out there (she's a writer whose focus is definitely on quality over quantity).  Here's hoping I manage to stumble across some more of her work soon...

*****
Footprint Books, as always, assure me that this book is available in Australia, either at bookshops or through their website :)

Thursday, 13 November 2014

'Blumenberg' by Sibylle Lewitscharoff (Review)

Three years ago, during the first edition of German Literature Month, I was lucky enough to win a German-language copy of Eugen Ruge's In Zeiten abnehmender Licht (In Times of Fading Light), one of the German Book Prize longlisted titles kindly given away by Lizzy.  As it happened, Ruge took out the prize that year, but there was another of the shortlisted books which caught my eye, and this year I've finally got around to trying it.  It's a book about a philosopher, an elderly man who prefers to be alone with his thoughts - that is, until he acquires an unusual companion...

*****
Sibylle Lewitscharoff's Blumenberg is a novel with a rather Kafkaesque beginning.  We're in the north-western German city of Münster in 1982, and philosopher Hans Blumenberg is working at his desk one evening.  Suddenly, he looks up from his work, only to see an unusual object lying on the floor of his study - a lion...

The unexpected visitor is placid, unmoved - as, strangely enough (after the initial surprise), is Blumenberg.  He begins to think about the creature's provenance, wondering how best to approach his guest:
"Mit einem Löwen zu konversieren, das hatte Blumenberg nicht geübt.  Bisher hatte es ja keine Gelegenheit gegeben, solches zu tun."
p.11 (Suhrkamp, 2013)

"Conversing with a lion wasn't something Blumenberg had ever practiced.  To this point the opportunity to do so hadn't really presented itself."
*** (my translation)
This is the start of a strange relationship, one in which the lion has a calming influence on the old man.

While the lion generally stays in Blumenberg's study, he does venture out occasionally.  On one excursion, he's seen by a sharp-eyed nun, the only person apart from Blumenberg to do so.  Shortly after his arrival, he ventures into Blumenberg's lecture, and while he isn't visible, four of the students sense something unusual in the room.  Like the philosopher, the reader is perplexed by the lion's presence - what on earth is going on?

Don't expect me to come up with many answers here: Blumenberg is a rather tricky book to work out.  It's based on the figure of a real-life philosopher, and it's a story that plays with the metaphor (or the reality?) of the lion to explore the themes the writer is interested in.  There's another similarity to Kafka here - this is a book with an obvious metaphor that defies unravelling...

An easier place to start is with the four students, the only ones in the crowded lecture hall who seem to sense the presence of the lion.  There's the nervy Isa, a beautiful middle-class girl with a crush on the elderly professor; her boyfriend Gerhard, a brilliant student with a troubled past; Richard, a lazy ladies' man with an urge to travel; and Hansi, handsome, unusual and obsessed with poetry.

The longer the story goes on, the more we learn about the four, and leaving Münster, we follow their fates after the near-encounter with the professor's mysterious companion.  It's perhaps no coincidence that they were able to sense the lion.  You see, the four are connected by their future more than their past - all are in for a tough time.

Blumenberg is a gentle, amusing book to begin with, and the reader will enjoy the bizarre appearance of the lion and Blumenberg's grumpy old man, very quick to accept the appearance of his new companion.  Lewitscharoff starts off with a gentle sarcastic tone, half mocking, half smiling at Blumenberg, and the other characters are introduced similarly.  Isa's intended gift of flowers to Blumenberg is one example of a humorous, farcical misadventure.

Gradually, however, the story becomes darker, allowing us to see a pattern emerging.  The past starts to intrude, specifically the Second World War, with the setting of the early eighties beginning to impose its weight on how the characters act and react to events.  Richard, for example, is shown to be running away from the burden of a German past, but his experiences overseas make him reconsider his beliefs:
"Die moralische Rigorismus seiner eigenen Generation, die verbockte Kampflust gegenüber den Eltern, eine Haltung, die wenig davon wissen wollte, wie es sich im einzelnen unter dem Faschismus gelebt hatte, wurde ihm allmählich suspekt." (p.162)

"The moralistic dogmatism of his own generation, the pigheaded confrontational attitude towards their parents, a position that didn't really want to know how individuals actually lived under fascism, gradually began to seem suspicious." ***
Perhaps the past isn't quite as black and white as he'd thought after all...

While the students are trying to find their way in the bleak Cold-War atmosphere, Blumenberg puts all his energies into his work.  However, with the arrival of the lion, he begins to reconsider his way of life, wondering whether his academic endeavours are merely a distraction:
"Für den Moment wußte er nicht, was er tun sollte.  Sein Produktionseifer, der enorme Fleiß, der ihn immer ausgezeichnet hatte, all das war ein Kampf gegen die Leere.  Ein Kampf, der nicht zu gewinnen war, wie er im geheimen wußte, ein Abwehrzauber, ähnlich dem Singen von Kindern im finsteren Walde." (pp.151/2)

"For the moment, he didn't know what to do.  His enthusiasm for work, the great industriousness which had always distinguished him, it was all a struggle against the void.  A struggle which couldn't be won, as he secretly knew, a kind of defensive charm similar to the songs children sing in the middle of a dark wood." ***
After a lifetime spent grappling with philosophical matters, the arrival of the mysterious lion might be the biggest conundrum of all.  It's not giving much away to say that the novel ends in a much darker manner than the one in which it began.

Blumenberg is a book which is both intriguing and puzzling, and it really takes a while to see where Lewitscharoff is going (I'm still not sure I got it completely).  More than with most of the books I've read for German Literature Month, there was a distinct culture gap here, with the writer assuming shared knowledge of Blumenberg himself and the prevalent mental state of Germany in the early 1980s.  I frequently had the feeling I was missing something hinted at between the lines.  In addition, the narrative was interrupted twice by the intrusion of the narrator, foreshadowing events from the characters' later lives.  It all makes for a confusing read.

Despite all this, it's certainly a very good book.  If I had to define the lion at all, I'd mix my metaphors and say that it's the elephant in the room, forcing the characters to think about something they'd rather just ignore (what exactly that might be is probably best left to other reviewers...).  In 2013, Lewitscharoff won the Georg-Büchner Prize, one of the most prestigious German-language career awards, and I can see why after reading Blumenberg.  I'm definitely keen to try another of her books - I just hope there are no lions next time ;)

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

'Eine Halligfahrt' ('Journey to a Hallig') by Theodor Storm (Review)

One of the joys of German Literature Month is making time to return to some old friends, revisiting writers who have been ignored since a previous November.  Today's post, then, is a short trip in the company of one of my favourite classic German-language writers, and we won't even be taking the bus.  I do hope that none of you get sea-sick...

*****
Theodor Storm's Eine Halligfahrt (Journey to a Hallig) is a novella (possibly just a longish short story) describing a pleasant, short journey across the sea from the North Friesland region of Germany to one of its many 'Halligs', small islands unprotected by dykes and hence at the mercy of the sea.  A party of three - the narrator, a young lady and the young lady's mother - are ferried across the water to meet a relative who long ago decided to spent the rest of his days away from the mainland.

Of course, being a Storm tale, there's a little more to the story than this.  The trip, naturally, revolves around a love interest, and (just as naturally) it's one which isn't fated to provide a happily ever after.  Amidst the beauty of the sea and the tiny piece of land buffeted by the waves, we are treated to memories of a might-have-been love and a relationship doomed never to get off the ground...

The start is typical of Storm's modus operandi, with a frame narrative looking back to older times:
"Einst waren große Eichenwälder an unserer Küste, und so dicht standen in ihnen die Bäume, daß ein Eichhörnchen meilenweit von Ast zu Ast springen konnte, ohne den Boden zu Berühren."

"Once, there were great oak forests along our coast, and the trees stood so thickly together that a squirrel could jump for miles, from branch to branch, without once touching the ground." *** (My translation)
This is just the start of the theme of looking back (if not in anger), and while the main action takes place at a later time than that of the energetic squirrels, the whole story is occurs in the distant past.

There are actually two tentative relationships outlined here.  The first involves the narrator and the beautiful Susanne, his companion on the visit to the hallig.  The other, a slightly more mysterious one, has to do with the old relation who has withdrawn from society.  A jovial type, he nevertheless reacts strongly when a sore point is touched accidentally, such as when he is asked to play his old violin:
"Siehst du denn nicht, daß das ein Särglein ist?  Mann soll die Toten ruhen lassen."

"Can't you see that this is a coffin?  The dead should be left in peace." ***
This is a man with secrets loves of his own, hinted at, but never quite revealed...

Eine Halligfahrt is a short tale, but there's a whole lot going on.  In addition to the slow, unsuccessful flirting between the narrator and the beautiful Susanne, we are treated to a personal tour of the hallig (with Storm as our own travel guide).  On the trip to the little island, there's even a glimpse of local mythology, as a sailor tells the story of Rungholt, a mysterious North-Sea Atlantis.

While the content is interesting, though, it's the writing we're really there for.  I always seem to forget about this between reads, brushing Storm off as a mere scribbler of short stories, but whenever I return to his work, I'm always captivated by his achingly poignant passages and lyrical descriptions:
"Und siehe! - während das Wasser weich, fast lautlos zu meinen Füßen anspülte, plötzlich mit leichten unhörbaren Schritten ging die Erinnerung neben mir.  Sie kam weit her aus der Vergangenheit; aber ihr Haar, das sie kurz in freien Locken trug, war noch so blond wie einst. - Es war deine Gestalt, Susanne, in der sie mir erschien; ich sah wieder dein junges, festumrissenes gesichtchen, die kleine Hand, die lebhaft in die Ferne zeigte - wie deutlich sah ich es!"

"And lo!  As the water washed gently, almost silently up to my feet, suddenly, with light inaudible steps, the memory was walking beside me.  It came from the depths of the past; but the hair, worn in short, loose curls, was as blonde as ever. - It was your figure, Susanne, in which it appeared to me; once again, I saw your young, clearly-defined little face, your little hand, pointing vibrantly into the distance - how clearly I saw it!" ***
Storm treads a very fine line between poignancy and the over-wrought emotion of the Sturm and Drang works (e.g. Young Werther...), but he usually pulls it off.  This is one of his better descriptive pieces, full of beautiful, moving passages.

Luckily for all of you out there, this is one which has been translated into English.  It's available in a collection of three tales (along with Immensee and Hans and Heinz Kirch) in the Angel Classics version, translated by Denis Jackson and Anja Nauck.  Having read it in German, I have no idea about the translation, but someone who will know a little more about that is a certain Amateur Reader residing at the Wuthering Expectations blog, who posted on this one a while back.  All I can say is that it's certainly one I'd recommend - and I'll definitely be downloading more of Storm's stories for future perusal :)

Sunday, 9 November 2014

'The Parent Trap' by Erich Kästner (Review)

You're never too young to start enjoying the delights of fiction in translation, and nobody knows that better than the good people over at Pushkin Press.  Not content with reviving the reputations of writers like Stefan Zweig and Antal Szerb, and introducing us to modern writers such as Andrés Neuman, they've branched out into providing books for younger readers through their Pushkin Children's Books imprint.

I was keen to see what my daughter would make of some translated classics, so I was very grateful when Pushkin sent a few books for me my daughter to try - and, coincidentally enough, the first fits in very well with German Literature Month.  You see, this is a classic of German-language children's literature, with a storyline many of you will find rather familiar...

*****
Tell me about about yourself.
My name is Emily Malone, and I'm seven years old.  I like reading and dancing - and I like the movie Frozen!

What's the name of the book, and who is it by?
The book is called The Parent Trap, and it's by Erich Kästner.

What's it about?
It's about two girls, Lottie and Luise, that look exactly the same and are convinced that their parents are hiding from them that their other parent is alive.  Then they switch places and somehow things do *not* turn out as they planned, but also good things happen :)

Did you like it?  Why (not)?
I did :)  Because it was a good story, and it was really funny that they didn't even like each other at the start and then were really good friends.  Also, it's exciting when they change places because you don't know what's going to happen next!

What was your favourite part?
When one of them had a a dream, it was really weird because they cut the two girls in half!  But it wasn't really cutting them in half, they cut off one bit and then stuck it to the other girl, and the parents each took one child!

Was it difficult to read?
It was difficult to read the foreign words (the names and places).  Maybe it was a little difficult sometimes, but it was usually OK.

Would you recommend this book to other boys and girls?  Why (not)?
Yes, I would.  Because I think it would be a good story for girls, but I don't think, on the other hand, if they want to find someone exactly like them, it would be a good story - they might find someone, and then they might swap places!

Emily, thank you very much :)

*****
The observant among you may have noticed that the title has been used for a Hollywood film, and in fact the two versions of The Parent Trap (one with Hayley Mills in the double role and the other featuring Lindsay Lohan) simply relocated Kästner's story to the US.  According to Wikipedia, there have also been numerous German film adaptations of the novel :)

It's a very clever book and a story which is far more sophisticated than might first appear.  Written in the 1940s, its handling of divorce was quite advanced for its time, and the idea of children organising their parents' lives was no less controversial.  The English version is very well written, with plenty of wry asides, but then, you'd expect nothing less.  It's translated by Anthea Bell, the woman responsible for the English voice of Zweig, W.G. Sebald and... Astérix!

(More from Emily:
E: So the book was from a different language?
T: Yes, the translator had to read the book and rewrite it in English.
E: So she's a bit like a re-author?)

In short, it's well worth a read (for both young and old), and Emily is already eyeing off the next of the Pushkin Children's books.  However, I think I might just hide them for a few days - at the rate she reads, I'll be spending all my time writing reviews in the near future...

Thursday, 6 November 2014

'Transit' by Anna Seghers (Review)

After a short trip to Chicago, German Literature Month moves on again, this time taking us to the south of France.  It's 1940, and France has surrendered to the invading Germans; however, with half of France still nominally 'free', for those able to cross the Loire there's still a chance of escape.  The real problem though is not bullets, but paperwork...

*****
Anna Seghers' Transit is the tale of a young man in a German labour camp, who escapes to Paris when he hears that the Wehrmacht is on the march.  Once there, he meets up with a fellow escapee and is asked to deliver a letter to a certain Weidel, a writer.  However, once our friend tracks down Weidel's most recent abode, a problem occurs - according to a woman he speaks to, the writer committed suicide a few days before the visit.

Still clutching the letter, and the dead man's briefcase, the narrator flees south with many other refugees, narrowly managing to avoid falling into the hands of the occupying forces.  Eventually, he succeeds in reaching Marseilles, where thousands of miserable souls from across the continent are waiting for a passage on a ship to the new world.  Unlike the others, our hero has no desire to leave the city; until, that is, he encounters a beautiful woman desperate to cross the ocean.  She also happens to be the writer's widow...

This is not your usual WW2 setting, with no murders, brutality or Jew bashing, and this makes Transit a fascinating read, a different look at the war.  In its way, though, it portrays a situation just as desperate as most other war novels.  Seghers describes (from her own experiences) a town at the end of the world, the last refuge of people terrified of being caught up in the forthcoming conflict.  Everyone is desperate to leave - well, *nearly* everyone.

Our laconic narrator is a man on the run (who much prefers to walk), a calm character unwilling to leave a place of relative calm.  The novel is told in a frame narrative, so the reader is aware from the first page that he's still in Marseilles.  He's sitting in his favourite café, telling a visitor (the reader) his story:
"Ich möchte gern einmal alles erzählen, von Anfang an bis zu Ende.  Wenn ich mich nur nicht fürchten müßte, den andern zu langweilen."
p.6 (aufbau taschenbuch, 2013)

"I'd like to tell the whole story, just once, from start to finish.  That is, if I can do so without boring my listener." *** (my translation)
It's certainly an intriguing tale that he spins over pizza and rosé,

Transit is a descriptive tale of Marseilles at the end of 1940, a place which is less a city than a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare.  For those wanting to flee to the new world, it's not just a case of obtaining a ticket for one of the infrequent, quasi-mythical passages across the Atlantic.  There are many other documents required for the passage, including a visa for the end destination, a document giving you permission to leave, and (of course) the transit visa of the title, allowing you to travel through intermediate ports.

While it may sound fairly straight-forward, it's anything but, with many would-be travellers experiencing frustration.  Often, one piece of paper arrives just as another has expired, making it all worthless.  Boats fail to appear, others are commandeered by the military, a seemingly-valid visa turns out to have a crucial stamp missing.  For most of the book, it appears that the refugees are trapped in a twisted, hellish purgatory.

Which, in a way, they are.  Marseilles is the waiting room of the promised land beyond the ocean, the last obstacle to overcome before setting sail for a better life:
"Ich hatte mich in den letzten Monaten immer gefragt, wohin denn das alles münden sollte, das ganze Rinnsal, der Abfluß aus allen Konzentrationslagern, versprengte Soldaten, die Söldner aller Heere, die Schänder aller Rassen, die Fahnenflüchtigen aller Fahnen.  Hier also floß alles ab, in diese Rinne, die Cannebière, und durch diese Rinne ins Meer, wo endlich für alle wieder Raum war und Friede." (p.41)

"I had repeatedly wondered over the previous months where this would all end up, this whole stream, the flow from all the labour camps, scattered soldiers, mercenaries from all armies, criminals of all races, deserters of all flags.  Here, then, everything flowed to its end, into this channel, the Cannebière, and down this channel into the sea, where there was finally space and peace enough for all." ***
While most of this stream of people is desperate to get out of Marseilles as quickly as possible, the narrator takes it all a little more calmly.  On several occasions, he likens the period of 'transit' to life itself, with people desperate to move on to 'a better place'.  If only they'd just enjoy themselves here and now...

Transit is an interesting story, but I did feel that the pace was a little slow at times.  The writing wasn't always amazing, and it dragged in parts.  However, for the most part, it was a good read, and there were great touches of humour breaking up the tension.  One I particularly enjoyed was the awkward meeting with the narrator's ex-girlfriend, one he handled nicely:
"Ich war von Kopf bis Fuß nicht auf Liebe eingestellt." (p.14)
I'm afraid that's not a line that translates easily into English - it's much easier to point you here instead :)

I didn't enjoy this book quite as much as I'd expected from the many positive reviews, but it is an interesting tale of life in a difficult time.  As an East German take on the war, it's also of particular interest, and anyone who likes reading about this period of history will probably enjoy it.  There's enough here to make me give Seghers another go, but I'm afraid Transit won't be getting my monthly prize ;)

*****
Transit is available in English from NYRB Classics, translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo.