Closing out the old year with December by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter

So, my first post of 2016 is a look at the last book I read in 2015. In truth I read it throughout the last month of the year, although not a little each day as intended, my father’s illness has interfered with all of my best laid reading plans of late. However I could not allow the year to draw to a close without finishing this book of calendar stories marking a passage through the month of December in the unique and inimitable style of Alexander Kluge, complemented by the haunting wintery forest scenes captured by Gerhard Richter.

2016-01-01 17.29.52This slim, elegant volume is my first encounter with the work of the German writer and film maker Alexander Kluge. The 39 stories, many less than a page long, are presented in a straightforward manner with a humour so subtle and wry that it simmers below the surface, blurring the perceptual line between history and speculation. Kluge offers a chronicle of an alternate reality so close to our own that it can catch you off guard. A flimic sensibility permeates each entry.

December is divided into two sections. The first part contains a series of dated entries, one story, or a cluster of stories, for each day. The years assigned to the dates vary. Many of the scenarios are set in or around the years of the Second World War. Others tend to be placed in the latter part of the first decade of the twenty-first century. But there are forays far back into prehistory and looking off to a distant future. Characters wander in and out from historical factual reality, war themes of conflict and destruction recur, as do images drawn from concerns about climate change and the fallout from the economic collapse of 2008. The ageless question of the nature of good and evil is a prevalent theme – “evil proves to be good displaced or straying in time” – as is the measure of the passage of time itself, whether measured on a global scale or at a much more personal, intimate level:

“The uncertainty, above all the lack of influence on whether and when someone will be struck down by the war, makes the soul bold. There is nothing to be lost any more.

So, after an air raid in 1944, which went on for hours, Gerda F. did not save herself up any longer. No thought of waiting for one of the returning warriors, whom she still knew and who would ask for her hand. She  didn’t want to get to know any better those left behind in the armament factories of the place. All were looking for closeness. She took a man who was passing through town up to her room. They never saw each other again. There was nothing about it that she regretted.”

The second, shorter section is titled “Calendars are Conservative”. They form a series of reflections on the way time – days, months and years – are recorded, calculated, and, as in certain situations such as during the height of the French Revolution, manipulated and distorted. The revolutions of the earth on its axis and the passage of the planet around the sun may be measurable with relative consistency, but that has not kept humankind from trying to understand, articulate and contain the progress of time, again in both the macro, political sphere and in the individual philosophical context:

“What manifests itself in my story, the story of a living person, is not COMPLETED PAST (what was, because it no longer is), also not the prefect tense of what has been in what I am but instead the OTHER of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming.”

2016-01-01 17.32.15To spend a month, dipping in and out of the stories, anecdotes, and reflections Kluge has assembled to mark the end of the year is a treat. Although the images are often sombre, the atmosphere is contemplative. Gerhard Richter’s accompanying photographs enhance the measured tone. If you have ever experienced a day of heavy and unexpected snowfall, those days in the Northern Hemisphere that can bring all but the most essential services to a halt, granting a welcome reprieve from school or work for many; you will know how time can slow to a leisurely pace while the thick blanket of white muffles the day to day noise of the city. That is the sensation captured in the muted monochrome images of snow laden branches in silenced forests. This is the December we hope for but, caught up with the demands of year end and pressures of the holidays, frequently fail to achieve. A time to contemplate the past, for better or worse, speculate about the future and pull another calendar year to a close.

Translated from German by Martin Chalmers, December is published with the expected fine attention to detail by Seagull Books.

In the era of the great ‘still’: The Room by Andreas Maier

“Venturing in there during the time of the stench would have been hell. I would have died of disgust. But I wasn’t scared of the room: given that setting a foot in there was completely inconceivable, its existence, so to speak, fell completely under the threshold of my perception. It was there, and yet at the same time it wasn’t.”

Set in the Wetterau, the fertile agricultural region north of Frankfurt, The Room by Andreas Maier marks the beginning of a proposed series of eleven memoir/novels exploring small town life in post war Germany. The reference point that launches this ambitious project is modest – the room that was once the private, darkened domain of the narrator’s uncle J. It may sound rather claustrophobic to begin with such a confined and specific space, but the spirit of this small novel as is expansive as the unfettered and innocent imagination of the simple minded anti-hero at its centre:

“This is the beginning that everything else stems from. The room, the house, the street, the towns, my life, my family, the Wetterau and everything else beyond it. My uncle, the only human being without guilt I have ever known. On his way into the real world, but with one foot still in paradise.”

As a consequence of a difficult forceps delivery, J would never shed the wonder and fleeting frustrations of a willful child as he grew into an adult. If it made him vulnerable, he didn’t notice. Incapable of feeling pain and always eager to fit in, he was unaware of the cruelty, physical and emotional, directed at him by his peers and by his own father. He lived in a world of fantasy – peopled with war heroes, mountain climbers, stone masons, crane operators, policemen, hunters. He loved to walk in the woods, could identify different birds, and seemed to have a special affinity for plants and animals.

RoomBut perhaps, more than anything, he was deeply attached to his brown VW Type 3 Variant and, quite remarkably, he had a drivers license. Driving, for J, was a huge production which he took very proudly and seriously. He was a simple man living in a simpler time, but at a moment when the world was poised to enter a new global reality. In his experience, J existed at a time when workers still routinely drank before work, on the job and, of course afterwards; when smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, though as deadly then as now, was not discouraged; and when no one commented if you scooped five teaspoons of sugar into your cup of coffee.

“My uncle didn’t live a healthy life, that’s for sure, but then again it wasn’t really the fashion to live healthily back then – you could pretty much choose the way you would die, and it was usually the way you had lived.”

The narrative around which the The Room is constructed, with many segues and asides, is the imagined description of a typical day in the life of J, at some point during the year of the moon landing, 1969. The narrator himself is only two years old at the time, so he does not pretend to remember anything that he sets out to recreate. Rather, he builds on what he has heard of his uncle’s life, filtered through his own childhood memories of a foul smelling man who frequently annoyed him or made him uncomfortable, and the adult understanding and compassion that, sadly, came too late.

J’s day begins early with a walk to the train station. From there he catches a train to Frankfurt where he works at the postal depot, a job his brother-in-law, a lawyer, had secured for him after his father’s death. What he thinks of his job and how he fits in there is not known. After work he is pictured considering the advances of a prostitute in the Red Light district near the Frankfurt Train Station. Does he enter the brothel or hurry home? His nephew sketches out varied scenarios but, in the end, he does not know what goes on in J’s mind.

“In my uncle, therefore, you could alternately see either the triumph of nature over the law or the triumph the law over nature. In reality, though, he was positioned between the two, and presumably at the complete mercy of both, and that’s why the former Frankfurt Kaiserstrasse district offered the best opportunity to get to the heart of the matter. Germany the land of secrets. My uncle, the man of secrets.”

Upon returning home, Uncle J disappears for a nap, and then emerges to a list of errands that his family has devised for him… refreshing the flowers on the graves in the family plot, picking up his sister, delivering his mother to the hairdresser’s. He tries to resist his mother’s insistence that he shower, or a least clean himself up, a task that he pays less and less attention to as he ages. In the end he complies, driven by his ultimate goal – the hope that he will later be able to spend a few hours at the Forsthaus Winterstein in the company of the hunters he so admires. Every step of this recreated day is measured out within the framework and idiosyncratic order that J appeared to impose on his own life, imagined from the inside, but ultimately unknowable.

The narrative tone of this inventive balance of fiction and memoir is reminiscent of the filling and emptying of a time capsule. The narrator places himself into the scenery, his two year-old, pre-language self as speculative as his uncle’s world and possible mindset. Maier extends and condenses time – bringing a mythical quality to a world in flux, blending the simple man’s worldview with the adult narrator’s knowledge of how his uncle’s life will continue to unfold, and the way that the Wetterau itself will be transformed over the four decades that come to pass between 1969 and the present moment when he sits, in his uncle’s former room, now converted to an office, to commit this tale to paper.

The Room, translated by Jamie Lee Searle, is available from Frisch & Co, a publisher of electronic books based in Berlin. The next two installments in Andreas Maier’s series, The House and The Street are due to be released in the the spring of 2016.

A look at two winter treasures from Seagull Books

It may not be winter by the calendar (yet), but here, where I sit, north of the 49th Parallel and west of the Rocky Mountains, it is a perfect wintery day. The snow has been falling, no too much to be fair, but the wind has been playing with it, sweeping it into drifts and coating the roads with ice. A good day for a good book.

2015-11-24 20.04.02

In recognition of the German Literature Month reading project that is drawing to a close this week (a growing list of over 120 reviews contributed by participating bloggers can be found here) I wanted to call attention to two very special books that not only feature German authors, but celebrate the book as a work of art. Both have winter themes and are published by Calcutta based Seagull Books.

Victor Halfwit: A Winter’s Tale by Thomas Bernhard is a short fable lavishly illustrated by Sunandini Banerjee. Listed in the Seagull catalog as “Children’s Literature”, I would suggest that this is, aside from being an opportunity to introduce a child to Bernhard early (and who would not want to do that?), a book to speak to the child inside. The story is essentially classic Bernhard. On a cold winter’s night, a physician crossing through the forest on his way to see a patient, stumbles, quite literally over a man lying in the snow. This man with the improbable name of Victor Halfwit is legless as the result of an accident and now, most unfortunately, his wooden legs have “snapped in the middle, as wooden legs do”, leaving him helpless and facing a miserable end. He had been on an ill-conceived attempt to win a bet with a miller who had wagered that he, Mr. Halfwit, would be unable to make his way from Traich to Föding, through the snowy forest, in just one hour, on his wooden legs. The faint chance of winning 800 schillings – the price of the finest pair Russian leather boots, something he had long desired – was too tempting, so Victor took the bet and nearly proved the miller right. Almost. But then, even a happy ending would not be without it’s bitter dark irony. This is Bernhard after all.

Taking a sentence or two at a time, this tale is presented in the company of rich, glorious collages. Drawing inspiration from famous artworks, medical illustrations, Indian imagery, playful designs and so much more, each page turned presents a new, original background to compliment the passage in quite unexpected and infinitely wonderful ways. I will confess that I ordered this book without paying much attention to the description. I knew it was Bernhard, I knew it was illustrated, but I was completely – and happily – caught off guard by this large, most gorgeous book when it arrived in the mail. I had expected something special, but honestly I had imagined something more modest. As a gift for a Bernhard fan or a lover of visual arts, or for yourself, let’s be honest, I would heartily recommend this book.

December is a take on the tradition of calendar stories that pairs 39 short texts by German writer, film director and critic, Alexander Kluge, with 39 haunting photographs of wintery forest scenes by Gerhard Richter. Included in this collection is a story for every day in December. Some are set during the war years, others in the 2000’s; some appear to have a straight forward historical tone, others seem more experimental in form. I can’t actually say because I intend to read this book throughout the month of December. Each entry is short, no more than a couple of pages at most. I bought this book with a gift card my daughter gave me for my birthday, thinking that it would be a welcome companion for the dark days – in a practical and an emotional sense – of December. Like many, I find it to be one of the most difficult times of the year and I look forward to exploring this work as the month unfolds.

Victor Halfwit: A Winter’s Tale and December are both translated from the German by Martin Chalmers and published by Seagull Books.

The dying gold of ruined stars – Poems: Book One of Our Trakl by Georg Trakl

“Sun, autumnal, thin and shy,
And the fruit falls from the trees.
Stillness dwells within its blue rooms
During a long afternoon.”

– from “Whispered during the Afternoon”, Georg Trakl, translation by James Reidel

Many years ago when I was in school, poetry, in so far as we were introduced to it, was almost exclusively the works of English language poets. In high school I fell under the spell of the English Romantic writers and that was the beginning. Over the years though, I would be inclined to think that most of the poets I have become obsessed with wrote in English, that is, until I began to read more translated fiction. With that my attention shifted, or to be more precise, my horizons became broader.

TraklThis year, a German book enthusiast I have come to know through the “internet of book discussions”, the corner of the web I inhabit, introduced me to Austrian poet Georg Trakl. Somehow he had escaped my attention before. Of course, when you come to read poetry in translation, the question of the translation itself becomes critical. Typically, when more than one translation of a poet’s work exists I try to access and compare a few. But when Seagull Books released the first installment of a three part series of Trakl’s poetry, I did not hesitate to order a copy, sight unseen.

Poems: Book One of Our Trakl is a new translation, by American poet and translator James Reidel, of the poet’s first collection, simply titled Poems (Gedichte), which was originally published in 1913. In his note at the opening of this volume, Reidel recounts that he has endeavoured to preserve the same concentrated mania that marks the works of the 19th century poets Trakl would have read: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Hölderlin and Poe. He says:

“I want to actually channel Trakl, his craft (with its implicit painterliness) and work ethic, to have him, so to speak, absorbed in the right dosages he – as a poet, pharmacist and addict – intended.”

Reidel does go on to add that to emulate Trakl’s delivery in English, the rhyme scheme of the original poems is often necessarily sacrificed, but the contortions required to retain  rhyme can trivialize a poet’s spirit and tone.

In an essay in the online poetry journal Mudlark, Reidel expands on his Trakl translation project. He provides an overview of Trakl’s short and tragic life, as well a discussion of his approach to the translation, and a selection of his translations presented with the original German. A poet himself, Reidel brings a sensitivity and insight to his reading and approach that I, as reader, value:

“I have found that when you read Trakl in the original German, you get a snapshot of what is there. When you go back, you get another view. It may be sharper or less so, and with the feeling that it is intentionally less so. This can be frustrating for those who speak and think in English, that lawyer of languages. There is no fixed point to reading him or rendering him. This makes any book of translations simply a collection of snapshots of a particular reading at any point in time. Another way of rendering/reading a Trakl poem is through the barrel of a kaleidoscope, where one can only fix on a view when one stops or when the glass bits sometimes jam. I do this.”

Born in 1887, into a prosperous Salzburg family, Trakl was a precocious child, creative and intelligent – by his early teens he was experimenting with lyric verse that showed great promise. He could, however, be withdrawn and prone to depression. He was exceptionally close to his sister Margarete (Grete), a musical prodigy with whom he is thought to have engaged in an incestuous relationship. He began publishing poems in 1908, in Vienna where he had gone to study pharmacology, a tempting profession for one who already had a tendency towards addiction. As a budding poet, he enjoyed early success and mentorship during the following years, ultimately attracting the discreet patronage of Ludwig Wittgenstein. But the outbreak of war forced him into military service. Relying on his training as a pharmacist he hoped to avoid direct combat, but the trauma of trying to attend to desperately wounded troops without adequate supplies would drive him to attempt suicide. He was sent to a military hospital in Kraków for observation, but suffered a relapse and was found dead of a cocaine overdose on November 3, 1914. He was 27 years old.

                Patterns of Decay  (c) JM Schreiber, 2011
Patterns of Decay , Copyright JM Schreiber, 2011

This first volume of Trackl’s poetry, beautifully bound and presented by Seagull books, readily lends itself to an immersive reading from beginning to end. The autumnal themes that feature so strongly make it an even more evocative read for someone like myself at this time – that is, in November in the northern hemisphere – but autumn is rendered almost metaphorical in his verses. Nature figures in his work, rendered through rural and religious imagery; however nature, for Trakl, is one which couches death and decay as an intrinsic element of its stark beauty and haunting appeal:

In the evening, when the bells toll of peace,
I follow the birds in their glorious flights,
Long multitudes, like pious trains of pilgrims,
Disappearing into autumn’s clear breadths.

Wandering through the twilight-filled garden
I dream following their brighter destinies
And feel the sundials barely move any more.
So I follow their journeys above the clouds.

There a blast of decay makes me start to tremble.
The blackbird laments in the leafless branches.
The red vine totters on rusting trellises.

While like a dance of death of pale children
Around the dark weathered rim of the fountain
The blue asters toss shivering in the wind.

– “Decay”

These are quiet, brooding poems that show a clear obsession with decline. They speak to a young poet struggling to capture the gloom in his own soul, consequently the poems have a very immediate and personal feel. Are they depressing? As someone who has had his own lifelong challenges with mood dysregulation, I find his words oddly comforting. I am not equipped to offer a critique of poetry, I am afraid I can, in this case, only speak to what I feel. And I don’t believe I am alone in registering a profound personal response to Trackl’s poetry. In his short life he produced a small, but vital, body of work that would have an important influence on other German language poets including Paul Celan, Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke; and draw the ongoing interest of poets, translators and readers outside of German speaking countries that continues to this day, just over one hundred years after his death.

For my part, I can only eagerly look forward to the upcoming additions to Our Trakl.

For all the restless souls: The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig

The landscape haunting the seven intermeshed stories that make up The Sleep of the Righteous by the late German writer Wolfgang Hilbig, is decidedly bleak. The fulcrum around which these stories pivots is an industrial town south of Leipzig – run down, defined by its drabness, perpetually unfinished, bordered by mine pits, the ruins of munitions factories, a lake, marshes,and, beyond that, the forest. Before and after reunification, this town remains a place in which time exists on another plane of reality, at least as far as the narrators – all varying shades of the same man with more than a passing resemblance to Hilbig himself – experience or remember it:

“Time persisted here in dogged immutability; the autumnal fog banks that merged beneath an earth-colored sky appeared unlikely to pass for decades to come. And more and more smoke seemed to spill from the sodden lowlands into the flat clouds, which, even in the afternoon, were nocturnal.”

sleepThis powerful collection is divided into two parts. The first part focuses on childhood, coming of age or, as it often seems, waiting to come of age, to “rise at last from the state of useless, unfinished, in-between beings”. Set in the years immediately following the Second World War, the town is a place where men are in short supply. The majority of the children are fatherless, their mothers widowed, and few babies are born. Consequently, relationships and social dynamics are skewed. In the opening story, “The Place of Storms”, the young narrator endeavours to negotiate the murky waters between the realm of the “little children” and that of the “older children”. Rumours that his grandfather has a gun boost his status and potential for crossing the divide, while the horrific swim trunks his mother knits him complete with suspenders are a decided barrier. All of the awkward anxiety of youth is played out in the grimy pools of the abandoned mine pits at the end of the street where children wile away the summer hours divorced from the world of the suffering, lamenting adults in their lives.

The stories in the second part are set in the 1990’s, after the Wall has come down. The protagonists are all now grown men, writers, who have long since moved away from this small town, but find that they are unable to stay away. Restless, they regularly return to encounter ghosts, to visit an aging mother, or to escape a disintegrating relationship. No matter how long they may have been away, they never really leave the place behind. But they return to a town that is dying, industries and businesses that have been abandoned, and memories that cannot be escaped. In the final, and longest story, “The Dark Man”, the unnamed narrator is an established author who encounters, on the darkened streets of his old hometown, a stranger who has pursed him and now reveals that he was the Stasi agent responsible for intercepting and reading the writer’s correspondence. He claims to have a collection of letters originally intended for our hero’s former lover, a woman who presently lies near death. The narrator is disturbed, but determined not to let this curious relic of the GDR get the better of him – he denies any suggestion that he and his enemy have anything in common. Yet when he gets back to his mother’s apartment, the man in the bathroom mirror bears a haunting resemblance to what he could manage to make out of the stranger in the dark.

The Sleep of the Righteous is one of those books where you may well be inclined to stop and reread a paragraph several times before moving on, not because it is opaque or dense, but because the language is so captivating; the flow and rhythms, like eddies in a stream of water, swirling, reversing, and moving forward again. The brief title story is a sadly lyrical meditation on the cycle of guilt and recrimination that binds and defines the relationship between a boy and his grandfather who, in a reorganization of sleeping arrangements, end up sharing a bed following the death of the grandmother – a demise that one of them might have inadvertently caused. It opens:

“The dark divests us of our qualities. — Though we breathe more greedily, struggling for life, for some fleeting substance from the darkness… it is the darkness that forms a mute block above us: intangible matter our breaths cannot lighten… it seems to burst apart at each answer from the old man, each lament of breath, yet sinks in again swiftly to weigh down still closer, in the cohesive calm of myriad tiny black, gyrating viruses. And we rest one whole long night in this block of black viruses, we rest from the toils of the day: from the everyday toil of circling each other, still and hostile.”

Night after night, grandfather and grandson twist and turn to a nocturnal chorus of queries and accusations, in this poetic evocation of the tensions that underlie the fictions that families maintain to make sense of the very ordinary tragedies that strike close to home.

In his introduction to this volume, Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai, writes that in focusing on the mundane, the everyday life in East Germany, Hilbig manages to heighten the oppressiveness of that existence, rendering it all the more horrific as a consequence: “He wrote his astounding novels about a world in which only the weak, the sensitive, those incapable of bargaining and in no way heroic, can sense the chaos and the surrealism.” However, the measured, heavily weighted quality that hangs over the stories in The Sleep of the Righteousness, is bouyed by the sheer beauty of the prose and the quiet resilience with which the protagonists respond to the circumstances that history has gifted them. This could be a depressing read but somehow it is not.

Translator Isabel Fargo Cole, in a recent interview in World Literature Today, indicates that this collection is one of Hilbig’s most autobiographical works. His narrators tend to share the same basic features of his background – his grandfather emigrated from Poland, his father disappeared at Stalingrad, and he grew up with his mother in a household dominated by women. The town he mythologizes in his tales is modeled after the same one where he was born and grew up. Yet, it does not feel liked these are connected as part of a continuous narrative so much as each protagonist seems to have a similar launching point from which he proceeds to tell his story. There are overlaps and divergences along the way.

The Sleep of the Righteous is published by Two Lines Press. Along with his earlier novel,  I, which was also translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and released by Seagull Books this summer, English speaking readers finally have a chance to experience the sombre magic of Wolfgang Hilbig. And, hopefully, look forward to more.

Last letter from Petrópolis: Montaigne by Stefan Zweig

Over the course of his life, Stefan Zweig was a most prolific writer, known not only for his novels and plays, but also for a wide range of historical and literary biographies. He has been criticized as a lightweight by those who fail to appreciate his charms, but it is difficult to deny the passion for literature and lifelong learning that informed his work. With his biographical subjects he followed the topics and personalities that caught his attention and, perhaps as a consequence, he was drawn to write about those whose work and ideas he admired, as well as some of the figures who played darker roles in history.

motaigneThe last of the writers to captivate him, the subject of his final book, was Michel de Montaigne. Hitler’s rise to power in 1934 drove Zweig from his native Austria to England, but by 1940, with Europe torn apart by war, he crossed the Atlantic to New York City where he stayed briefly before moving even further to Petrópolis, a German community in Brazil. Here in the mountains north of Rio de Janeiro, far from the library he been forced to abandon in Vienna, he would uncover a dusty copy of Montaigne’s Essais in the cellar of his house. He made this fortuitous discovery in the autumn of 1941 and his delight in it would preoccupy the final months of his life. In February of 1942, Stefan Zweig and his wife were found dead in their home. It is not certain but, as much as Montaigne provided him the comfort of a kindred spirit speaking out across the centuries, he may have also inspired or reinforced his decision to end his own life.

Zweig opens his biography with a confession that when he first encountered Montaigne at the age of 20, he was filled with youthful idealism for the new century that was dawning. He could not imagine what relevance he might find in this “Frenchman already yellowed by time and lost in the riddles of his Latin quotations”. Ahead he could only envision the prospects of peace and progress. Rediscovering Montaigne 40 years later, he found immediate parallels between the violent upheaval of the years of the Reformation and the devastating collapse of 20th century glory into the brutal waves of intolerance and destruction sweeping Europe. Curiously, the age of 20 was also the age at which Montaigne himself decided to end his formal education on the conviction that by 20 the soul is formed and thus, beyond that point, the spirit will not be further enhanced. He would, of course, turn his attentions inward in his lifelong effort to understand that soul.

There is, in the course of this short biographical account, little that will be new to anyone acquainted with the general details of Montaigne’s life and writings. What is of more interest is what this essay reveals about Zweig’s mindset in the last winter of his life. This is very clearly a personal undertaking. Even though Zweig set about researching the social and political context in which Montaigne lived, the resulting work was never subjected to a judicious edit and, as it exists, it tends to be overly repetitive in some aspects, especially where Zweig’s enthusiasm runs high. He finds in Montaigne a friend, a wise counsel so desperately needed when his own despair at the state of the world is reaching an all time low and, as such, he is inclined to defend his friend against his critics even if his arguments tend to be based in emotion rather than reason. The only criticism he himself is willing to levy is with respect to his hero’s noted disregard for his children and the women in his life, and his desire to find refuge from their demands on his energies. Still, Montaigne’s withdrawal to his tower to contemplate the nature of the self – that is, the self that interests him most dearly: his own – is a choice that draws Zweig’s sympathy and support.

As a writer and a lifelong lover of literature and history, Zweig finds a like-minded ally in Montaigne. He admires the way that Montaigne engages with books. He reads without obligation or duty, choosing to discard books that are not working for him. As Zweig remarks:

“He is without doubt a serendipitous reader, an amateur reader, but there has never been, in his time or in any other, a finer or more perceptive reader. Concerning Montaigne’s judgement on books I am 100 per cent in accordance.”

Later he continues:

“The great lesson Montaigne receives from books is that reading, in its rich diversity, sharpens his faculty of judgement. It impels him to respond, to lend his own counsel. And this is why Montaigne tends to annotate his books, underlining passages and writing at the end the date on which he read them, or the impression that they made on him in that moment.”

It is hard to argue with this sentiment. Two lovers of books, passionate about reading are bound to feel instant kinship, even when reaching across time and space. For a man in exile, cut off from his intellectual community in Europe, it is not difficult to imagine that Zweig felt he had found a soul mate in Montaigne.

But then why was this bond, this example of a man so firmly dedicated to the question of how one should live, not sufficient to carry Zweig through his darkest hours? Montaigne is careful in his essays not to dictate how others should live. His focus is always turned inward. He shares what he finds and what he comes to believe he should strive for in living. Zweig draws up a list of the constraints that Montaigne expresses a desire to avoid including: vanity or pride, presumption, fear and hope, belief and superstition, ambition and avarice, fanatacism, and family and familiar surroundings. There is, however, one more:

“And one last freedom: in the face of death. Life hangs on the will of others, but death on our own will: ‘La plus volontaire mort c’est la plus belle.’”

That is, he insists, the most voluntary death is the most beautiful. If Zweig who was known to struggle with depression had already contemplated suicide (and according to the translator’s introduction he had expressed that sentiment before), one cannot help but wonder if he found some measure of validation in Montaigne’s writings.

This biography stands as an example of the deeply personal impact that literature can have on a reader. Zweig argues that there are writers who come to you, or come back to you, at the time when you are ready to hear them. This final work took precedence over any of this other writing projects in the months leading up to February 22, 1942, the day he and his wife each took an overdose of barbiturates and lay down together hand in hand. In a sense Montaigne exists as a final effort for a sensitive writer to make peace with a world that seemed to have spun off its axis. For that reason alone it is worth the read.

glm_v

Translated from the German by Will Stone, Montaigne by Stefan Zweig is a new released from Pushkin Books.

Listen closely now – The Voice Imitator: 104 Stories by Thomas Bernhard

[one love affair]

THIRTEEN INSTANCES OF LUNACY
TWENTY SURPRISES
FOUR DISAPPEARANCES
TWENTY-SIX MURDERS
TWO INSTANCES OF LIBEL
SIX PAINFUL DEATHS
THREE CHARACTER ATTACKS
FIVE EARLY DEATHS
ONE MEMORY LAPSE
FOUR COVER-UPS
EIGHTEEN SUICIDES

With the list above, the cover of the University of Chicago publication of The Voice Imitator offers a warning to the potential reader of the themes that feature in the 104 stories that lie ahead. For seasoned readers of Thomas Bernhard none are likely a surprise, though it is quite possible to emerge at the end thinking, “were there only 26 murders and 18 suicides?” Chances are it feels like there are more. But that’s okay. Would you really expect less?

VoiceIf the thought of encountering a volume containing 104 stories sounds intimidating, be assured that this collection spans all of 104 pages. This is Bernhard in microcosm, all of the acerbic wit and dark charm one could want from the Austrian playwright, poet and novelist distilled into brief anecdotal tales, each recounted within the space of one page.
The longest fill the page, the shortest are no more than a few lines.

Drawing on newspaper reports, rumour, and overheard conversations, Bernhard exploits this condensed form of fiction to tackle his favourite targets, including, of course, his native country. Even in a confined space, he finds room to explore the foibles of human nature and contemplate the bitter ironies of life. There is a healthy dose of death – murder, suicide, accident – some, tragic, some absurd; and no small measure of madness. Featuring a familiar retinue of philosophers and professors, craftsmen and woodcutters, musicians and artists, freaks and loners; the stars of these anecdotes and fables are driven by conviction, thwarted ambition, disillusion, and disappointment. Just like, well, the rest of us.

The least effective pieces are the very shortest. A few more lines are often in order to set the scene, to draw the drama, to pull the the punch. But even then, the emotional impact can be striking with less than half a page:

“Sitting in the early train, we happen to look out of the window just at the moment when we are passing the ravine into which our school group, with whom we had undertaken an excursion to the waterfall, had plunged fifteen years ago, and we think about how we were saved but the others were killed forever. The teacher who had been taking our group to the waterfall hanged herself immediately after a sentence of eight year’s imprisonment had been passed on her by the Salzburg Provincial Court. When the train passes the scene of the accident, we can hear our own cries intermingled with the cries of the whole group.”                        (Early Train)

The use of the first person plural in the majority of these stories lends an intimate tone. One can almost imagine the narrator as one of those inveterate storytellers who always has an entertaining morsel at hand: a family legend, a piece of wisdom, a mini tirade to share. Bernhard’s language plays on repetition, relies on qualifiers like “so-called” – one can almost see the air quotes – and, in this shortened format, he delights in throwing a punch at the end, leaving the reader with a gasp, a nod, or an ironic laugh.

Some might see this as an introduction to Bernhard for those uncomfortable diving into, say, a single-paragraph 200 page novel. But it works even better, one might argue, as a treat for those who are already acquainted with some of Bernhard’s classic works. Each little anecdotal story stands like a glimpse into the windows of Bernhard’s world… the themes, characters, and images that feature in his longer works shine, isolated for a moment, in the space of a single page or less. Contained in this way, his rhythm, his cynicism, and acerbic wit ring through. Bite-sized Bernhard to marvel at and enjoy.

glm_vThe Voice Imitator is translated by Kenneth J. Northcott. This stands as my first contribution for the German Literature Month reading challenge.

Probing the fantastic imagination: Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz by Maxim Biller

“Schulz was incomparably gifted as an explorer of his own inner life.”
– J M Coetzee

The year is 1938. In the dull light of a basement apartment in the town of Drohobycz a man is anxiously penning a letter to his literary hero Thomas Mann. He works at a desk that is too low for him. When he is disturbed and distressed by the sound of birds pecking at the high windows he slips down onto the floor and continues working there until the falling autumn light forces him back up to the desk. On the walls of his room hang drawings he has made – fantastic dark sketches of domineering women and desperate men.

bruno_schulz_paintingThe man is famed Polish writer and artist Bruno Schulz. As he composes his missive to Dr Mann, German author Maxim Biller is conducting a guided tour to the interior thoughts, fantasies and fears – make that Fear with a capital F – that he imagines fueling Schulz’s surreal and creative imagination. The resulting novella, Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz serves as a delightfully inventive introduction to an original and influential writer.

“Ever since he could remember Bruno – for that was the name of the man with the face like a paper kite – had awoken every morning with Fear in his heart. Fear and he had breakfast together in Lisowski’s tearoom, Fear accompanied him to the High School and looked over his shoulder as the boys put their unsuccessful sketches of animals down in front of him, as well as plaster models, covered with black fingerprints, of their sweet little heads.”

Biller paints a portrait of a deeply anxious man… a character that would be at home in one of Schulz’s own stories. When he meet him he is unsuccessfully struggling with a novel. He lives with his sister and her two sons. She still believes her dead husband will return. His students whom he thinks of as “bird-brained” literally appear to him as birds, at his window and in his room. He has a conflicted affection for a sado-masochistic sports and philosophy teacher whom he describes as beautiful despite her hairy monkey face and filthy matted hair. But more critically, he carries an impending sense of doom as it increasingly seems inevitable that Germany will be moving toward Poland. It is with that in mind that he is writing to Thomas Mann.

inside headA most curious and twisted fellow claiming to be the great writer has turned up in this small town, charming the residents with enticing stories and grotesque gatherings. The fictional Bruno is anxious to alert Dr Mann to the existence of this impostor whom he suspects is actually a Nazi spy, and to beseech him to consider offering a poor Polish writer critical assistance. With an opportunity to publish in a prestigious journal or an introduction to an important publisher, the timid Bruno believes he might find the courage to leave Poland. He has even written a story in German to include with his appeal.

Combining biographical facts with a wildly fantastic vision that echoes Schulz’s own dark, dreamlike work, Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz is a lateral approach to the writer’s restless creative energy. A brief biography and two of Schulz’s own short stories, “Birds” and “Cinnamon Shops” follow the primary text, making this short book which clocks in at under 100 pages, an irresistible invitation to explore more of the work of this important Polish writer. Unfortunately a number of stories and the unfinished novel he was at work on in this tale were lost after his death so what remains is limited. However, Schulz himself has resurfaced and been has been re-invented and re-discovered as a writer and artist time and time again in novels by Cynthia Ozick, David Grossman and Philip Roth among others, as well in plays and film. (See the essay “The Strange Afterlife of Bruno Schulz” by Jaimy Gordon for an excellent overview.)

SchulzBruno Schulz was a Polish-Jewish writer born in 1892 in Drohobycz, a town historically part of the kingdom of Poland,  now part of the Ukraine. During his lifetime he published two collections of short stories, The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. He was known to be at work on a novel, The Messiah, which has not survived. He worked as an artist and an art teacher for many years. When the Germans moved into Poland during the Second World War, his artwork granted him temporary protection under the auspices of an admiring Gestapo officer in exchange for the painting a mural in the officer’s home. On November 19, 1942, walking home with a loaf of bread, he was shot in the back of the head by another Gestapo officer, a rival of his protector. He was 50 years-old.

Published by Pushkin Press (April, 2015 in the UK/October 2015 in North America), Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz is translated from the German by Anthea Bell. The stories “Birds” and “Cinnamon Shops” from The Street of Crocodiles, were translated from the Polish by Celina Wieniewska and originally published 1963.

The art of distilling a life lived: A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke

“My mother has been dead for almost seven weeks; I had better get to work before the need to write about her, which I felt so strongly at her funeral, dies away and I fall back into the dull speechlessness with which I reacted to the news of her suicide.”

With this simply stated aspiration, Austrian writer and dramatist Peter Handke set out to capture the essence of his mother’s life and chronicle the painful spiral that swept her into a darkness which would lead her to take her own life at the age of 51. Written over two winter months in 1972, the result is a slight volume, 69 pages, that can be read in afternoon. But length can be deceiving. Tracing out a life that spanned the rise of the Nazis, the Second World War, and the austerity and suffering that followed,  A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is a spare and elegant memoir from which the reader emerges drained and aching alongside its author.

sorrowFrom the outset he admits that he is seeking an element of closure in the act of putting words to paper, but he wishes to avoid an overly sentimental account, concerned that he risks turning his mother, a real person, into a “character.” He intentionally adopts a more distanced perspective. He does not refer to her by name, and when he recounts the events of his early years he is “the child” or one of “the children”. He employs capital letters for emphasis (“she was a woman who had been ABROAD”). But there is another motive as well. He sees in her life an illustration of the social restraints that defined and limited the lives of so many women from poor rural communities such as the small Austrian village where she began and ended her life. As such he wishes to present her life story as one that is at once personal and exemplary.

The portrait he paints of his mother is one of a spirited young woman, who was denied her pleas to be allowed to continue her studies, for an education beyond the basics was not to be squandered on girls or women. So she ran away to the city to study cooking – not exactly an academic pursuit, but again the only option open for her. She thrived in her new environment: a world of new friendships, fashions, opportunity, and the heady comraderie that accompanied the rise of National Socialism.

The outbreak of war only added to the excitement as young soldiers, away from home and lonely, flooded into the city. She met and fell in love with a married man. Before long she was pregnant, but by the time her son Peter was born she had married another man. Her first romance would remain her only true experience of romantic love; what she had with her husband was a disappointing, often hostile, and very lonely existence. After the war the young family spent a few years in Berlin, living amidst the rubble. A second child is born there. (Over the years she will have two more children and secretly abort three others with knitting needles.) In 1948 they flee Germany and return to Austria, where she finds herself back in her family home, trapped again in a restricted environment, her life once more defined by the Catholic shame and guilt of village life.

Economic conditions at this time were harsh and her husband’s drinking and difficulty holding employment did not help. She responded with the only strategy available: “pure scrimping; you curtailed your needs to the point where they became vices, and then you curtailed them some more.” Necessities would be wrapped up and handed out at Christmas. As Handke recalls, “I was sincerely grateful for the most indispensable school materials and spread them out beside my bed like presents.” Yet she did not look to the possibility that life might hold more for her than housework and continually making the rounds required to keep her drunkard husband employed, creditors from the door and paperwork up to date just to assure access to the most basic benefits.

Finally, as modern appliances started to appear in her house, freeing up a little precious time, Handke’s mother took to reading. Not just the newspapers, but books he brought home from university: Fallada, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner and more. She took everything she read very personally as if each book was a commentary on her life. But by doing so she began to find the words to express herself and put voice to her experiences. As she gradually emerged from her shell, her son finally began to learn about her. However they did not give her a vision of hope for her own future, they spoke only to a past:

“Literature didn’t teach her to start thinking of herself but it showed her it was too late for that. She COULD HAVE made something of herself. Now, at the most, she gave SOME thought to herself, and now and then after shopping she would treat herself to a cup of coffee at the tavern and worry a LITTLE LESS about what people might think.”

For a while she become more engaged in the community, showed more compassion to her husband, and things might have improved but the disappointments of home life still seemed to defeat her. She began to have headaches. She started to withdraw from community life. Her spirit sagged and no one could tell her what was wrong until a neurologist in the city identified her condition as a “nervous breakdown”. With the comfort of having an explanation and medication to ease the pain, she eventually improved. There would be a respite. But in the end despair returned. In November of 1971, she wrote farewell letters to her each member of her family. Then one evening after dinner with her daughter and an evening watching TV with her youngest son, she took all of her sleeping pills and all of her antidepressants and laid down on her bed to welcome that final rest.

If Handke had imagined that in writing this account of his mother’s life he would be able to achieve some peace himself, he discovers, in the end, that that is not the case. The story continues to preoccupy him, to haunt him. Facing memories head on is an act of confronting horror but it does not ease it. The horror arises from the persistent attempt to reflect a truth. He admits that at times he longed to be able to lose himself in a fiction, to be able to tell lies for a while, write a play instead. No longer able to stay out of the frame, he closes the book with a collection of images, remembrances, and brief personal confessions.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is, as its subtitle indicates, a “Life Story” told with simplicity and honesty. As Handke reflects in an extended parenthetical aside almost halfway through the book, he wanted to pare his mother’s story down, to present her life with a focused clarity. He sees, in the type of project in which he is engaged, two particular challenges:

“These two dangers – the danger of merely telling what happened and the danger of a human individual becoming painlessly submerged in poetic sentences – have slowed down my writing, because in every sentence I am afraid of losing my balance. This is true of every literary effort, but especially in this case, where the facts are so overwhelming that there is hardly anything to think out.”

The result he achieves is a memoir stripped to its essentials, but delivered with stark, beautiful prose. His love comes through in every phrase as he recounts his mother’s story, and the emotions that arise as he sees her through the final rituals of her shortened life are real, complicated and raw.

*A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, translated by Ralph Manheim with an Introduction by Jeffrey Eugenides is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Dark brightness and bright darkness: Berlin Stories by Robert Walser

“Up above is a narrow strip of sky, and the smooth, dark ground below looks as if it’s been polished by human destinies. The buildings to either side rise boldly, daintily, and fantastically into architectural heights. The air quivers and startles with worldly life… And always people are walking here. Never in all the time this street has existed has life stopped circulating here. This is the very heart, the ceaselessly respiring breast of metropolitan life. It is a place of deep inhalations and mighty exhalations, as if life itself felt disagreeably constricted by its own pace and course.”

Great cities have their own personalities and in the company of Swiss writer Robert Walser, Berlin of the early twentieth century becomes a living, breathing entity, a dynamic metropolis drawing in the ambitious, the hopeful and the desperate in equal measure. As a guide to the city, its haunts, and its colourful inhabitants, he is endlessly engaging. His name has been surfacing in my consciousness for a while now, but I had not gotten more than a few stories into this collection before I wondered why it had taken me so long to “discover” him for myself.

BerlinBerlin Stories from New York Review of Books is a collection of short stories composed during Walser’s years in Berlin and the first few years after he left, originally edited and organized by German Walser scholar, Jochen Greven. In her introduction to this edition, translator Susan Bernofsky tells us that, with the beginnings of a literary career underway, Robert Walser moved to Berlin in 1907 at the age of 27. His brother had already enjoyed success as a set designer in the thriving theatre scene. The city was bursting with life. Over the next six years he would record that life in short stories or “prose pieces” and three novels. But financial security eluded him and his own eccentricities did not help him secure the patronage that would have benefited him. He returned to Switzerland in 1913.

The pieces in Berlin Stories are divided into four sections or “movements”: The City Streets, The Theatre, Berlin Life and Looking Back. Most of the pieces are quite short, often no more than a page or two. Narrators who may or may not be Walser himself, wander the streets, ride the trams, or take in theatrical performances while offering attentive discourses on the sights and experiences of city life. He can be thoughtful, melancholy, humourous or sarcastic, sometimes striking playful barbs at contemporaries.

As with any collection of short works, especially one with 38 stories, it is hard to capture a sense of the volume in a brief review. There is so much magic in these pages, it is difficult not to marvel at the acuity of Walser’s observations. He is especially gifted at peering behind the glitz and creating moving accounts of what Bernofsky calls the “humbler aspects of city life”. He has an uncanny eye for the small details that play across the faces and animate the actions of the characters he sketches. Sometimes his observations are direct, at other times his intentions are delivered with a deft backhand as in “The Little Berliner” a story in which he takes the voice of a precocious 12 year-old girl, who enjoys a life of wealth and privilege. But all is not as wonderful as one might suspect. She reports that: “For reasons whose depths I cannot understand and consequently cannot evaluate, my parents live apart. Most of the time I live with Father.” She admonishes herself for confessing to her diary, but Father, for all his wealth and charm, is sometimes a very angry and unpleasant man. The observations and attitudes swirling around in her child’s head present a rather caustic view of the rich delievered in a wonderfully clever way.

Another piece I really enjoyed for its pure descriptive power is “Fire”, in which the narrator and his companion get caught up in the excitement of what must have been a fairly regular occurrence at this time – a house on fire. A spectacle drawing the curious, it is an event at once ordinary and extraordinary:

“an entire street is brightly, garishly lit up by it, it resembles a sunset in the distant south, ten evenings ablaze, a host of suns setting in unison. You see the façades of buildings looking like pale-yellow paper, and the bright red glow of the fire approaches, a thick glowing, wounded red, and beside it the street lanterns look like feebly burning damp matches.”

No one is injured in this instance but a distinguished old piece of architecture is lost, a fact greeted by one of the observers as a healthy form of natural selection, clearing out the dead wood and making room for new construction.

I could go and quote from this work at length, there are little gems nestled in almost every piece. More than 100 years on, his work is vital, entertaining and immensely readable. At the height of his career he was a favourite of Kafka, Musil, Hesse and Walter Benjamin. The resonance of his voice has carried on through the influence of those who admired his work giving it the immediacy that feels so surprising when one first encounters him now. In his lifetime which was increasingly spent in mental asylums, Walser seemed to disappear off the radar. Greven’s German scholarship in the 1950s and the first English translation of his work not long before Walser’s death in 1956, brought him to the attention of a new generation of highly influential writers including WG Sebald, Peter Handke and JM Coetzee.

Now, if you have yet to make the acquaintance of Robert Walser, hurry along and check him out. Personally I’m sold and can’t wait to read more.