“Quiet the evening through till dawn.” The Sea in the Radio: Journal Sentences by Jürgen Becker

Whenever a story began, he never quite understood where it was supposed to go.

After my father died I found, in his office, a journal he kept for the last full year of his life. He recorded each day’s trips, chores and purchases with occasional comments about my mother’s health, the quality of a restaurant meal, or some other personal detail like a book he was reading. He also tracked the weather and key stock market statistics. It demonstrates just how unwilling he was to let a day pass without a set of accomplishments, but captures none of his opinions, worries or hopes. However, it is one of my most precious possessions, a diary I read as a man in his eighty-eighth year trying to hold on to the passage of time.

There is an element of this kind of reporting the mundane ordinariness of the everyday in Jürgen Becker’s The Sea in the Radio: Journal Sentences, a fragmentary novel stripped to its most essential elements. Within the series of isolated sentences, phrases and brief passages that comprise this work, a regular report of the day to day flow of weeks, seasonal tasks, and observations of nature not only contribute to an atmosphere of place but speak to the desire to believe that some things stay the same, hoping that as long as this flow continues, the story will not end and one can defy death a little longer. But this novel does not recreate a diary as such, rather it constructs a picture of a village or community, past and present, as its residents age and face the end of life, as memories and images surface from a dark history that has left its mark on a generation that spent their childhood and youth during the war.

A train station appears in the course of everyone’s life.

Poet, writer and radio dramatist, Becker was born in Cologne but spent the war years in Thuringia. He was a participant in Gruppe 47, a collection of important German writers, from 1960 until their dissolution in 1967 and has long been involved with PEN Centre Germany and the German Academy for Language and Poetry. He is known for an open form of experimental literature set in opposition to narrative conventions. The Sea in the Radio (2009), perhaps the first of his prose works to be translated into English, reflects the importance of landscape seen in his later works as well as the tendency to cast side-long glances at the experience of growing up during the Second World War that drives so much of his prolific literary output.

This spare, evocative novel speaks, without a direct narrative voice, from the shadows and the corners of a world drawn with sharp, poetic precision. Unnamed characters, recurring motifs and locations and wisdoms build a tale that captures the ordinary business of every day against the long shadows history casts. It begins with bucolic imagery—snow in the winter woods, owls that call at night, the glow of the light—but an ominous tone appears early: the trains off behind the woods that one never saw, the off-road vehicle that is always moving from place to place, photographs showing people or houses that are gone, allusions to secrets lurking. Grammatical tense can be misleading. Is this a statement about the present or the past? Outside the odd quoted statement there is no “I,”, the closest one gets is with the indefinite, gender neutral pronoun “one,” otherwise we move between second, third, and first-person plural perspectives. Wordplay and aphoristic observations also appear, contributing to the overall poetic feel of the text. As we move through the three parts—three orchestral movements that each end with the acknowledgement of the relevant conductor—the story that emerges is dramatic and vivid, despite the fact that so much of it lurks in the silences and spaces between the sentences.

Fine, if you know everything already.

When it is hot and dry, you don’t see any snails in the garden.

What should one do? One does what one can. One does what one can’t.

Motorcycles whining through the village. It’s Sunday.

Watching TV for hours. And then what?

After the storm the sun, immediately humid again, the next storm.

A hissing. Gravel sliding of the loading bed.

He says, Night’s shorter when you can sleep.

The pace is not slow, but charged with a kind of quiet restlessness. This is a novel that invites you to listen closely. An acute awareness of the passage of time and circumstances permeates the work, seeding it not with nostalgia but melancholy. Motifs recur and sentences play off one another, often contradicting what has recently been said, small themes build across a page or two then fade into the background, and there is a knowing humour to some of the observations: “In the waiting room there are magazines that one would never read otherwise.” There is, decades after the years that haunt the aging children that people this landscape, no closure, only increasing decline, illness and loss. And a little wisdom.

When you are old yourself, you treat the old people who are already dead in a friendlier fashion.

Translated by Alexander Booth with an ear to maintaining the rhythm and flow of this fragmentary work, The Sea in the Radio is presented with a design of subtle beauty that features detail from Hokusai’s iconic print The Great Wave off Kanagawa and a pattern simulating water that runs across the lower edge of every page.

The Sea in the Radio: Journal Sentences by Jürgen Becker is translated by Alexander Booth and published by Seagull Books.

you still don’t know / that you exist, & yet: in field latin by Lutz Seiler

i have said
something, sung without
my hands: i have

smoked up all the shadows.
lungward i took these shafts to where
the empty space begins the rustling
      out along the paling
towards the railway cars—seventeen years

before the text.

(from “sentry duty”)

Poet and novelist Lutz Seiler was born in 1963, in Gera, in the state of Thuringia in the GDR and, like many writers from the former East Germany, the arts, as a career, were not on his radar when he was growing up. He was expected to acquire a solid, practical trade and complete his mandatory military service—that was the accepted foundation required to be a productive member of society. And so he did, training as a mason and a carpenter, but during his period of service he began to read poetry, kindling an interest in reading and writing that would ultimately shape his future. He went on to study literature and is now widely recognized for his poetry and prose. German nature poet Peter Huchel (1903–1981) was an early influence on his own writing and, fittingly, in time he would become the custodian of the Peter Huchel Museum in Wilhelmshorst, thus carrying his distinct variation on the same literary tradition into the twenty-first century.

Natural themes and a strong sense of place mark Seiler’s work. This can be seen clearly in his collection in field latin, Alexander Booth’s thoughtful translation of his 2010 publication, im felderlatein. Rooted in the bucolic landscapes of his home state which, prior to reunification, was situated in the southwest corner of the GDR, many of his poems elicit the shifting moods of the borderlands, adding a certain layer of ambiguity to his precise, attentive lyric poetry.

within the fields’ rippling script the glimmer
of a few bricks, some tufts of grass & the small
      rests of bones: how

it all lies together in the end.
arise, ascent & so there was
a lot of signalling, radioing, failure
about my feet, step after step.

(from “what I possessed”)

The poems and sequences in this volume tend to draw inspiration from memories of childhood, family and the peculiarities of rural life. Seiler’s poetic form is spare, stripped down, details carefully selected and characteristically written with ampersands and without capitalization. This style is particularly affecting in German where nouns are typically capitalized, but in both languages the appearance on the page adds a hush to the sound and feel of his poems.

the shadows, aged early, but we
remember: homeward, lonely
simply walking
step by step recording
the silent outline. for

the shadows, at the beginning,
were the small, black units of pay
a currency for which
the creator interrupted his
.        work.

(from “the very first affection”)

Although Seiler’s poetic vision is clearly informed by his own unique political and literary inheritance—as much as any writer’s inevitably is—the deeply personal energy that animates his sparse, well-framed images invites recognition. It speaks to the universality of human experience. We are at once acutely aware of, and haunted by, the world around us. Every environment harbours its own ghosts. One of my favourite poems, “do you see the redbrick moon” evokes the image of an electrical lane. I once saw these parades of pylons marching across the landscape as an invasive species, but have learned to see them as a necessary presence, another creature that one might as well embrace as I do the line that runs between my apartment and the forest:

do you see the redbrick moon
above the eiffel towers? below that
the quacking, magnetic garbling & time
within the frogs’ legs humming?

this is the old high-voltage lane. it
holds the moistness to the poles, holds
the fog & supports it. soft
blue shadows envelop all, a spider

hands always its threads & floats
as if electrified. dreams unearthed.

Alexander Booth’s excellent translation allows Seiler’s poems room to breathe, preserving his unusual syntax and fine-boned imagery and emotion. As a result, in field latin offers a vital introduction for English language readers to the work of this important contemporary German poet.

in field latin by Lutz Seiler is translated by Alexander Booth and published by Seagull Books.

Dreams distancing: Triptych by Alexander Booth

When you open a book like Alexander Booth’s Triptych and you know you have encountered something special—not just the poems within but the entire production—it almost seems like its route from poet to your hands is one that was destined to be. It is one that, by fate or circumstance, has bypassed conventional publishers. Yet, this collection is not your average DIY project; it is a beautiful object, crafted with an elegant simplicity, featuring fine textured paper, and an original artwork gracing the cover. For Booth, an American poet and translator living in Berlin, the decision to put together his own publication rather than furthering the endless cycle of submission and rejection, offered a way to guide the creative process and reach out directly to interested readers.

I first became acquainted with Alexander Booth through his translations, but I’ve also encountered excerpts of his poetry here and there over the years. His work is spare, filled with a pale light, silent shadows, distant landscapes, winding streets and dusty rooms. His translucent imagery allows a sense of intimacy and distance at once, a blurring of the internal and external environment. The first person pronoun is rarely used, much is left unsaid, or open.

Triptych, as the title implies, is comprised of three sequences, each composed at a different time in the poet’s life. The first, “Roman Hours,” Booth describes as “miniatures or mourning songs” mostly located in Italy. They are minimalist portraits:

Slim sun-edged thumb
Of Roman brick

Umbered, undone

This late valley dozing
Under a late spring sun

You still want what will not last

– from “Eveningsong”

The second section, “The Little Light that Escaped,” is a blend of fragmentary verse and prose-like passages that “explores metaphorical and literal dislocation against the backdrop of the Mediterranean, twinned with Berlin.” It evokes a feeling of exile, of migrants moving into Europe desperately seeking a better, safer life, and of the author’s own sense of foreignness, living away from his home country. The experience of detail is heightened but often disconnected in a new or strange land. That sense is captured in this extended intertextual work:

Days passing, just out of reach of the sun. Days passing, in a basement room, watching the arc of the sun through a small square of sky. Tides of no turning. Blocks of light mosaic and slow days taste like mineral, copper, rust.

How much of the other side is one allowed to see? Shadow. Half shadow. Night barely impastoed before the distant blue of the country’s spine once again appeared. Mallow, poppy, thistle. Streets like veins tracing a story through the heart, the city a map of a narrative. What hands, what fingers worked the threads, and who gave voice to whom.

The final part, “Insulae” is a series of fifteen short pieces featuring rooms recollected from Booth’s past—in Rome, Berlin, and in the US—“a memory of architecture an architecture of memory.” These sketches are unique and yet familiar, and set off images in my mind the uncommon spaces I’ve inhabited over the years. How sharply they come back after so long.

Most of the time you were in the kitchen. It was narrow, and looked onto a couple of trees, a few pre-fab high-rises tinged in blue. Bluish evenings. Haunt, hope, hue. Still the light was warm despite winter’s grey monotony: ice-rain, snow, frostblooms before your morning mouth, all the way up through May.  (from VII)

In an interview with Tobias Ryan on Minor Literature(s), Booth discusses Triptych, his influences, and his reasons for putting this collection together on his own. With a small, targeted project he was able to focus on quality, understanding, as he says, “I can do this and control everything, and the people who will, will and those won’t, won’t and what difference does it really make?” It is not an approach all poets would want to, or could afford to follow, but as someone who was excited to be able to purchase a copy, I feel that this lovingly produced volume is worthy of attention for its own value and as an example of what “self-published” can be.

Triptych by Alexander Booth was published with a limited run of 150. I’m not sure if copies are still available, but for more information check his website: http://www.wordkunst.com/

Suspended in time: The Nameless Day by Friedrich Ani

Although there was a time when I would read occasional police procedurals, somewhat like a palate cleanser between what I might called “more serious” reads, my reading focus has shifted over the past decade or so and, consequently, it’s been a long time since I picked up a crime novel as much for lack of time than anything. However, when The Nameless Day by German writer Friedrich Ani arrived at my home wrapped in a stunning Sunandini Banerjee-designed dustjacket, I thought that, after so long, it might be a refreshing change of pace. What I found was slower-paced, more character driven, less solution focused read than I might have expected and, in my case, it was a good fit.

Recently retired, police detective Jakob Franck is looking forward to settling into an existence that will, he hopes, no longer be haunted by the mournful presence of ghostly visitors from the past challenging him with their unresolved secrets. Instead, he is unexpectedly contacted by a living herald of a case he had not directly investigated but had never forgotten. Twenty years earlier he had been charged to deliver to a family the news that their seventeen year-old daughter had been found hanging from a tree in the park. This particular task, the bearing of unbearably painful news, had become one that Franck seemed to excel at and so he had agreed to make the call. Only the mother was home. As she registered the news, Doris Winther collapsed into the arms of the detective and he ended up holding her, just inside the doorway, for seven long hours. The sort of unprecedented, irregular occurrence that leaves its mark. A little more than a year later, mother would follow daughter, recreating the act in the yard of the family home. Both deaths were declared suicides.

Suddenly, after two decades, Ludwig Winther, widow and bereaved father, re-enters Franck’s life clinging to a desperate conviction that his daughter was in fact murdered. He beseeches the former detective to have a look at the matter just one more time. Old habits die hard, Franck’s professional instincts are readily aroused:

Once again Franck caught himself thinking like an interrogator with only the admissible conclusion of an investigation in mind. But the man sitting in front of him, broken and bent by the leaden emptiness of his life, was no witness, he was a relative, a surviving dependent, the father of a daughter, the husband of a woman who had also hung herself and left behind a man who ever since had been wandering through the cages of his questions.

What unfolds is a re-awakening of memories, Franck’s own and those of the various people he contacts as he moves through a re-examination of those who knew Esther Winther—her classmates, her maternal aunt in Berlin, family friends, and neighbours. The narrative holds close to his perspective, and that of her diminished father, who, having been informally held responsible for his daughter’s and his wife’s deaths, has been reduced to living in an attic flat and working as a part-time delivery driver. Both men are in their sixties, divorced and widowed, and they have each chosen to remain unattached, but their loneliness is palatable. Around them the varied secondary and peripheral characters also echo various degrees of emotional isolation, grief and guilt linked back to either Esther’s unexplained suicide or to their own private tragedies. The world Ani so skillfully brings to life is not a happy one; the depth of family trauma reverberating throughout:

The silence, Franck thought, had driven that family into an inner and unsurmountable homelessness. The time to make a wish had never arrived for any of them; not even, he thought, looking towards the door again—no sound came from the other room—for Winther’s sister-in-law in Berlin. Inge Rigah had escaped the approaching shadow in her family’s world rather early, but in the place she had freely chosen to go she had instead become a prisoner of her dream, which she refused to realize or allowed only to remain as a sketch. In Esther she saw herself as a free spirit that no one could cage; and so, after her niece’s death, all that was left was the wrinkled anger she had carried around from the very first time she ever met Ludwig Winther.

As Franck works his way through the circle of connected individuals, concerns and accusations routinely circle back to the very man who initiated the reinvestigation of his daughter’s death. If not entirely sympathetic, Ludwig Winther is the tragic victim here. He had wanted to provide a good life for his family and in the end he lost everything—his daughter, his wife, his career, and his home. He became the focal point of anger and blame, accused of being inadequate at the very least, of rumoured unspeakable acts at the worst. Twice bereaved he was never granted the respect and space to grieve. His wife, sister-in-law, his daughter’s classmates all believed that he was directly or indirectly responsible for driving Esther to the point of no return. After twenty years, a small and defeated man, his attempt to find closure by proving to himself, at the very least, that fault belonged to someone else.

Whether anyone will find closure at the end of The Nameless Day is debatable. For some crime fiction readers that may be less than fully rewarding. For me, the questions that arise from the facts that we do learn are far more fascinating for the lack of resolution, for fate, and for the things we can never know. The dead may come to visit, but they tend to keep their secrets to themselves.

In the end, The Nameless Day is a satisfying, psychologically engaging read. Translated by Alexander Booth, the language is rich and poetic, and Ani’s willingness to leave room for what is unspeakable, unknowable and unsettled makes this a novel that will potentially appeal to a wide audience.

The Nameless Day by Friedrich Ani is published by Seagull Books.

*Read for German Literature Month 2018.