The seduction of ideological extremes: The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann

For months The Jew Car, Franz Fühmann’s autobiographical story cycle, sat on my shelf unread. I had bought it in anticipation of the recent release, in translation, of his last major work, At the Burning Abyss: Experiencing the Georg Trakl Poem. However, for some reason, I could not bring myself to read it. I have never been especially attracted to World War II literature, and with the current resurgence of neo-Nazi sentiments and far-right movements in North America and Europe, I was uncertain if I wanted to venture into a series of stories in which an East German writer traces a path from his enthusiastic adoption of fascist rhetoric as a youth, on through his experiences as a German soldier during the war, to his eventual rejection of Nazi ideology and acceptance of socialism in a Soviet POW camp. I wondered if I had the heart for it, and yet the translator of both volumes, Isabel Fargo Cole, advised me that Fühmann’s personal reflections in At the Burning Abyss would have greater impact and resonance with the background afforded by The Jew Car.

Born in 1922, Fühmann grew up in the predominantly German Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, the son of an apothecary who encouraged the development of a strong German nationalism. From the age of ten to fourteen, he attended a Jesuit boarding school in Kalksburg but found the atmosphere stifling. In 1936, he transferred to a school in Reichenberg, where he lived on his own for the first time and became involved in the Sudeten Fascist movement. After the annexation of Sudetenland in 1938, he joined the SA. 1941, he was assigned to the signal corps serving in various locations in the Ukraine before being moved to Greece as Germany’s fortunes declined. He was captured by Soviet forces in 1945. During his years spent as a POW, he would embrace socialism and upon his release in 1949, he finally found himself on German soil for the first time, settling in the GDR where he would spend the rest of his life.

Originally published in 1962, the stories in The Jew Car, which is subtitled Fourteen Days from Two Decades, follow the trajectory of Fühmann’s life between the ages of seven and twenty-seven. Presented with dramatic colour, they offer an attempt to explore the progression of his ideological development during this period. Through an engaging, often ironic voice and well-framed narratives, we watch Fühmann’s fictional alter-ego confront the psychological seduction of the persistent propaganda machine and engage in the mental gymnastics required to continually readjust to accommodate or explain away any evidence that failed to fit with what he has been led to believe.

The title story opens the collection. Set in 1929, the seven year-old narrator is caught up in a wave of rumours sweeping through his grade school. The children listen with a mixture of rapture and fear, to breathless tales of a four Jews in a yellow car who are said to have been travelling through the surrounding countryside, snatching and murdering innocent young girls. When our hero happens to spy a brown car carrying three people one afternoon, it becomes, in his imagination, vividly transformed into the feared mysterious vehicle exactly as described. At school the next day, he is the centre of attention, holding his classmates in thrall until the one person he dearly wishes to impress the most, the girl “with the short, fair hair” neatly puts him in his place. Yet rather than causing him to question his hasty assumptions about the car he actually saw, his humiliation is turned into an increased, abstracted hatred of Jews.

And so the process begins.

Fühmann manages to capture the mixture of naïve enthusiasm, patriotic fervour, and boredom that he and his friends regularly encounter as the tides of history are building around them. He is young, the air is charged with excitement mingled with fear of the dreaded Commune and the anticipation of liberation. At times his young narrator is surprised to catch the worried looks on the faces of his parents and other adults. His faith in the Führer is unshakable and he believes that the German Reich will not abandon the Sudeten German population to murderous cutthroats. This conviction is well captured in the story “The Defense of the Reichenberg Gymnasium.” (September, 1938) Although no violence has yet occurred in his corner of the region at this point, when an alarm summons him and his comrades from the Gymnastic Society to defend the Reichenberg gymnasium from imminent attack, he is ready and eager:

I was excited: I’d never been in a battle like this; the occasional school scuffles didn’t count, the scouting games and the stupid provocations of the police in which I and all the others indulged; now it would turn serious, a real battle with real weapons, and I felt my heart beating, and wondered suddenly how it feels when a knife slips between the ribs. My steps faltered; I didn’t think about the knife, I saw it, and as I passed Ferdl, a sausage vendor who stood not far from the gymnasium, I even thought of stealing off down an alley, but then I scolded myself and walked quickly into the building.

But, as uneventful hours begin to stretch well past lunch time, boredom and hunger start to set in. Ultimately it is decided to send forth a series of provisioning parties to remedy the situation. Young Fühmann is assigned to the third group:

It was a puerile game we were playing, childish antics, and yet murderous, and the awful thing was that we felt neither the puerility no the murderousness. We were in action, under orders, advancing through enemy territory, and so, the five-man shopping commando in the middle and the three-man protective flanks to the left and right, we casually strolled up the street, turned off without incident, made our way back down the parallel street through the tide of workers, Germans and Czechs coming from the morning shift, cut through the arcade, side by side, and at discreet intervals each bought twenty pairs of sausages with rolls and beer.

Fühmann is a gifted storyteller whose poetic prose and ironic tone are pitch perfect, especially in the earlier stories. He creates a portrait of his younger self that is not sentimental or idealized. His moments of empathy for individuals otherwise thought to be inferior are quickly reframed with racist convictions. He does not speak too much about his involvement in direct anti-Semitic actions (though he will in later works). What comes through most strikingly in The Jew Car is the sense of rational isolation that surrounds the individual. Information is strictly mediated, so that otherwise intelligent individuals lose any frame of reference or develop extreme responses to the continual routine of work and deprivation. His steadfast devotion to the military structure will start to weaken as he discovers poetry, although his first published efforts during the war are very much on message. Fühmann will not become a dissident poet until much later, long after the war is over.

The tone of the later stories is soberer, more contained. The narrator describes his conversion to Socialism in terms that border on the religious. He talks about having “scales fall from his eyes” during his training, describes reading Marx, encountered before but now understood in a new light. But he never provides detailed justification—he believes with conviction and is not ready to be swayed. The final tale which describes his arrival in East Germany after his release from imprisonment to join his mother and sister who have been relocated there, is forced and marked by Soviet style melodrama.

In his afterword to the 1979 reissue of The Jew Car, which aimed to address some of the editorial changes made to the original publication, Fühmann noted a shift in tone that impacted the overall flow of the collection:

Probably even while writing I began to sense the inconsistency in this work, expression of a fractured mindset, a switch from self-irony to affirmative pathos that had to lead to a decline in literary quality such as that between the first and last story…

However, although they are autobiographical in nature, these stories are essentially fictionalized—this is not an essay or memoir. That lends the collection a particular power and energy. Yet, there is a clear sense that the ending is idealized and incomplete, as indeed it is. As Isabel Cole’s Afterword goes on to explain, Fühmann’s infatuation with the socialist vision of the GDR will fade as he chafes against the rigid restrictions imposed on individual and creative expression. He will, nonetheless, remain in East Germany for the rest of his life. In 1982, two years before his death, he will publish an in-depth exploration of his personal evolution through his discovery of and affection for the poetry of Georg Trakl. To that work, At the Burning Abyss, my attention can now turn…

The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann is translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Seagull Books.

This review, together with my review of Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann represents my contribution to this year’s German Literature Month. Also related: See my recent interview with translator Isabel Cole, primarily regarding Wolfgang Hilbig, but also touching on Fühmann, which was published at 3:AM Magazine this past month.

Live in wonder. Write in wonder: Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann

As far as I’m concerned no one has ever died and very rarely do I consider anyone alive except in the theatre of my thoughts.

Coming to the close of Ingeborg Bachmann’s 1971 novel, Malina, one might be inclined to wonder if there is anything that can be said about the reading experience. The deeply internalized, fragmented, and operatic-toned narrative, can be—has been—parsed, analyzed, and examined and yet it retains a certain incorruptible integrity. It’s not an easy read, not so much for its technical difficulty, as for the absorbing, exhilarating, and disturbing intensity that pulls you in and holds you hostage until the surreal, dramatic finale in which the narrator virtually writes herself out of existence.

Malina is simultaneously invigorating and draining, richly detailed and frustratingly opaque. To read it is to be caught up in the narrator’s increasingly desperate effort to command her own narrative. And there is an uncommon grief that lingers long after the last notes are struck.

The novel, the only one Bachmann completed before her tragic death at the age of forty-seven, begins almost formally, with a list of characters. There is Ivan, born in Hungary, who works with money at a business that, to protect his future, is designated an “Institute for Extremely Urgent Affairs.” His young sons, Béla and András, who live with his ex-wife, spend time with him regularly. The titular character, Malina, is a forty-year-old civil servant who works at the Austrian Army Museum. Reserved and cerebral, and he shares an apartment with the narrator—a woman who refers to herself only as “I” (Ich—a writer of some renown, although, as in all things, she routinely absents herself, even from the opening credits where she describes in her vocation simply as “a profession (crossed out twice and written over).”

The time is: “Today,” the place: “Vienna.” The narrator’s anxious nature is evident from the first pages of the introductory section which sets the stage for the drama that will unfold in three acts. As she sketches out the essential map of her Vienna neighbourhood and draws the basic lines that connect her to Ivan, her love interest, and Malina, her housemate, she finds grounding in Place that eludes her in Time. “Today” is an almost overwhelming quality for her from the outset—an indication that this “today” will become an increasingly unstable measure as the narrative progresses. “I’m just afraid ‘today’” she warns us, “is too much for me, too gripping, too boundless, and that this pathological agitation will be a part of my ‘today’ until its final hour.”

Malina is then, in a sense, a persistent unravelling of time and the narrator’s psychologically fragile relation to it. Its threads, wound around Ivan in the beginning, and lost through the nightmarish middle chapter, will never quite be gathered again as her personality slowly disintegrates in the final part.

In the first chapter, “Happy with Ivan,” the narrator recounts her first fortuitous first encounter with Ivan in front of a florist’s shop and her immediate knowledge that she is meant to be with him. As far as she is concerned he has rediscovered her, reanimated her buried self, and made her feel whole. He completes her, she claims, in a way she longs to be completed:

At last I am able to move about in my flesh as well, with the body I have alienated with a certain disdain, I feel how everything inside is changing, how the muscles free themselves from their constant cramps, how their plain and diagonally striped systems relax, how both nervous systems convert simultaneously, because nothing takes place more distinctly than this conversion, an amending, a purification, the living, factual proof which could also be measured and labelled using the most modern instruments of metaphysics.

It is a relationship of physical convenience, no matter how the narrator revels in the perfection of their mutual understanding. Ivan is an unadventurous man. He offers little, but expects her to maintain a pleasant demeanour, present a feminine appearance, accompany him on outings with the children, and write joyous stories, rather than the morbid-titled tales he notices in her room. One senses he would prefer her to conform without question, and in her insistence that this is exactly what she wants as well, the narrative takes on a forced, uncomfortable tone. Meanwhile, Malina is, initially, an ambiguous presence who together with Lina, the housekeeper whose name curiously mirrors his own, provides order to what would otherwise be a chaotic home. He looks after her with a detachment that belies the long-standing intuitive connection she claims they have. As a result, we encounter a very strange dynamic within which the narrator herself is a continual source of uncertainty. It is at once unnerving and irresistible.

Malina’s fragmented, inventive text continually defies narrative expectations. One-sided phone conversations, unfinished letters, portions of a story the narrator is writing to please Ivan, and the transcript of an interview are woven in to what is at times a frenetic, highly descriptive narrative—an episode where the narrator is left alone to care for the children for a few hours is priceless. Gaps, unfinished sentences, and repeated efforts at composing correspondences leave curious spaces that can’t quite be filled in. Is the narrator being intentionally elusive, or is her memory or concentration slipping? Is she addressing a reader or talking to herself?

In the second chapter, ‘The Third Man,’ everything shifts. Place and Time are no longer fixed and a long series of nightmarish dreams, punctuated by Malina’s bedside interrogations and ministrations, unfolds like an extended feverish psychosis. The narrator’s father is a persistent cruel and violent presence. He repeatedly tortures, rapes and murders her childhood self in scenes that echo the atrocities of the Second World War as much as the complicated emotional brutality of familial dysfunction implied by the recurring allusions to settings from War and Peace. The imagery is relentless, hellish:

When it begins the world is already mixed up, and I know that I am crazy. The basic elements of the world are still there, but more gruesomely assembled than anyone has ever seen. Cars are rolling around, dripping paint, people pop up, smirking larvae, and when they approach me they fall down, straw puppets, bundles of raw wire, figures of papier mâché, and I keep going in this world which is not the world, with balled fists, arms outstretched in order to ward off the objects, machines which run into me then turn to dust, and when I’m too afraid to go on I close my eyes, but the colours, glaring, explosive, raving, spatter me, my face, my naked feet, I again open my eyes to see where I am, I want to find a way out of here, next I fly up high into the heavens because my fingers and toes have swollen into airy, skycoloured balloons and they are carrying me to the heights of nevermore, where it’s even worse, then they all burst and I fall, fall and stand up, my toes have turned black, I can’t go on anymore.

This stream of torment and horrific dreams, is regularly interrupted with segments of dramatic dialogue in which Malina alternately calms and challenges her. There is little comfort to be found:

Malina: You don’t have to believe everything, you better think about it.
Me:        Me?
Malina: It isn’t war and peace.
Me:        What is it then?
Malina: War.

The final chapter, “Last Things,” brings with what appears to be a resumption of calmer, more rational narrative, but the illusion is short lived. The recorded dialogues between the narrator and Malina continue and become a more prominent feature of the text—almost a necessary prop against which she can frame her thoughts. They also take on a denser, more philosophical tone and, as her relationship with her housemate takes on a greater, more threatening quality, Ivan’s influence declines, and her own grip on her own identity starts to slip. Security in her own gender shifts, she finds it difficult to write, and becomes aware of the changing nature of sentences of all sorts. As a writer, she is acutely sensitive to sentences as if they have a tangible existence and are, for her, part of the very fabric of reality. Early on in the novel she marvels at the perfection of the sentences she and Ivan have shared access to—they hoard telephone sentences, chess sentences, sentences about life in general—but she worries, quite tellingly, that they have no feeling sentences. During her dream sequences, when her father has her imprisoned, her sentences take on an animated form, keeping her company and rising up in her defense, and later, arriving as messages inscribed on stones (“Live in wonder,” “Write in wonder”). But as her affair with Ivan grows cold it is reflected in the way their sentences change (“the chess sentences are lying fallow”), and as her fragile personality starts to disintegrate written sentences also begin to fail her.

One could argue, or at least I would, that Malina is, most strikingly, a novel of the marvel, the power, and the betrayal of the sentence. That may sound self-evident, of course, it is after all, composed of sentences. Dazzling sentences. Sentences that call and echo across the whole of the unconventional narrative expanse. There is an inherent musicality at play, not only through the direct musical notation and cuing that infiltrates the text toward the end, rising to a devastating crescendo in the closing passages, but throughout the work which can be read as an elaborately staged performance. Bachmann commands a wide range of sentence styles—long and winding, rushed and impertinent, suspended and unfinished—to orchestrate a rich and troubling exploration of the dynamics between men and women, the limits of personal identity, and the question of what it means to be alive.

Malina was intended to be part of a proposed Death Styles trilogy. The other novels exist in unfinished form and carry elements and  stories of characters that pass through this one. It is unfortunate that the complete effect will forever remain unrealized. That in no way diminishes the power or impact of Malina, or the influence it has had on many other writers including Thomas Bernhard, Christa Wolf, and Peter Handke.

Translated by Philip Boehm with an illuminating afterword, “Death Arias in Vienna” by Mark Anderson, Malina is published by Holmes & Meier.

When you fall out of reality: Dispatches from Moments of Calm by Alexander Kluge & Gerhard Richter

As we witness an unprecedented assault on the integrity and role of journalists and the news media, fueled by recent events in the US—and, let’s be fair, in many other nations in our current climate of political unease—this collaborative effort to re-imagine an alternative approach to capturing reality is ever more timely and precious. The genesis of Dispatches from Moments of Calm (Seagull Books, 2016) lies in an unusual experiment. For one day, October 5, 2012, all of the noisy and distressing political reportage evaporated from the pages of the German national newspaper, Die Welt. In its place? Thirty pages of photographs capturing the simplicity of the everyday—a quiet interlude in restless times, created and directed by renowned artist Gerhard Richter.

calmInspired by this singular attempt to create a “moment of calm,” writer and film maker, Alexander Kluge, started to work on a collection of small stories to accompany the images. Richter responded in turn with the proposal of a collaboration. He added more photos; Kluge wrote more stories. The resulting book—a continuation of their first successful joint publication, December (2010/2012)is an important, and given the mood of the current times and the circumstances of the project’s origin, a more meditative and philosophical work.

The photographs scattered throughout the text isolate the ordinary instant. The atmosphere is placid, low-key. We see a dog sleeping in the sun, the blurred image of a family at a meal, a deserted downtown street, images of nature, children at play, a moody seascape, and more. But each image exists in a space apart from time and the world. And Kluge’s fictions, taking off as they so frequently do, from real life people, events, and ideas, offer the ideal counterpoint. Many of the stories explicitly explore the intersection between art, music and reality:

László Moholy-Nagy was asked whether a photograph reproduces a piece of reality. He denied the claim. He replied that a photograph is constituted by the fact that it concentrates on an actual moment and records it, becoming a textual addition existing outside the world. He knew, the Bauhaus man continued, series and networks of such photographs, which relate to reality or current events like a mirror (including the gaps in that reality, to a silence or to a nothingness), but which, when cut off from the rapidly receding stratification of time, would form themselves into their own republic, one that would superimpose itself (like an El Niño mudslide) onto the original impression that caused the photograph, which itself would have disappeared from the participants’ memory, had they never had the impression to begin with.

Dispatches comprises 89 stories and 64 pictures. Some of the stories—which range from a paragraph or two to a couple of pages—were composed to accompany, after the fact, specific images from the original Die Welt project. Both Kluge and Richter added more contributions on their own. In the resulting book, the confluence between images seems to be accidental, rather than exacting. Where a connection exists, the image is unlikely to occur near the corresponding story. This arrangement adds to the incidental flow of the work. There is, however a thematic structuring at play.

2016-11-30-22-39-33The book is divided into five parts. The stories in first section turn on the element of chance. With narratives featuring real figures from science, music, and history, alongside parables drawn from nature and from everyday life, Kluge explores the vagaries of fate and circumstance. The consequences, happy or unhappy, have the effect of promoting a sense of disequilibrium—an awareness of the fleeting quality of those moments of calm that we experience.

The second part takes us into the city starting with stories set in modern urban spaces, moving back in time to vignettes that speculate on the Mesopotamian origins of the city-state and ruminations on the nature of the concept “city.” This section closes with a story featuring sociologist Richard Sennett:

The city that we carry around inside ourselves, he said, is visible. But when you see a city destroyed by bombs, one which you do not know and means nothing to you, and you nevertheless feel sad, then you can see from this reaction that we carry around inside ourselves just such an invisible city. You see the city only when it has been lost.

These words seamlessly lead into a collection of stories set in the Middle East—Beirut, Lebanon, Syria, Israel—engaging current events, history and even opera to reflect, in words, the very instants Moholy-Nagy imagined captured in the mirror of a photograph.

2016-11-30-22-29-25The final two sections sharpen the focus on questions of reality—how we report it, record it, place ourselves in relation to it. The philosophical musings Kluge entertains in these brief stories offer so much to contemplate. His ability to exploit the fluid intersection between what we, especially in English language literature, want to divide into fact and fiction, lends his stories the sense that these should be considered fragmentary pieces of nonfiction. The influence that his work had on W. G. Sebald is evidenced in this regard. These stories, parables, and reflections are, in themselves, narrative truths—regardless of whether they describe events as they really occurred, or if they even occurred at all. Kluge wants to make you stop, in the moment, and think. Here, as an illustration, is one of my favourite stories, in its entirety to provide a taste of Kluge at work:

For many centuries, thousands of monks in monasteries between Ireland and Byzantium, dotted like islands across the barbaric land, were writing out the holy texts. Their zeal and their great efforts produced mistakes. The result was that the texts imperceptibly expanded. One learned monk in Samanca was delighted to find a text by Ovid on the back of a copy of the apocryphal LOGION OF ST JOHN. The copyist on the island of Reichenau could not resist including this interpolation. In this way, a text was expanded in a distinctly “unholy” manner.

A transcription of texts (just as if evolution had been tinkering with their DNA texts) doesn’t only create lines to new future texts. It can also be reconstructed in the direction of paradise. The way there leads through indeterminacies. ‘Nearer, my God to Thee’ was the music played by the orchestra on board the Titanic as the ship went down. But it is also the working instructions to copyists of all countries, who are driven from the omphalos of experience into the parallel world (heterotopia), the pre-world history and the future world (the world of our children, who are so attached to life). For copyists, all images are NOW-TIME.

I don’t know if it is the nature of the project from which this collaboration arose, that is, as an attempt to visually introduce an element of calm to the daily news cycle, that gives this book its impact, but in contrast to December, which I read at the end of last year (my review is here), Dispatches from Moments of Calm is a more powerful, comprehensive work. But then it may be a question of timing. Originally published in German in 2013, the driving forces against which Richter’s photographic interlude at Die Welt was superimposed, have not slowed. Uncertainty has increased and continues to grow. But as Kluge and Richter, two of the most influential and respected artists of their generation stand to remind us, art is more critical than ever at times like the one we find ourselves in at the end of 2016.

Like the dome of lights over a great city, the STATE OF THE NEWS forms an aura in which a general notion of what matters in the world coalesces.

It is out of such NEWS VALUES and not out of the facts themselves that the daily image of the reality of our world is put together. The products of poetry form an antithesis to this daily fluctuation. In painted images, and in the narratives of short stories and novels, time outside stands still.

Dispatches from Moments of Calm by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter is translated by Nathaniel McBride and published by Seagull Books. A second edition of their earlier collaboration, December (translated by Martin Chalmers) will be published, also by Seagull, in paperback, in Spring 2017.

Souls in disarray: The Country Road by Regina Ullmann

It is no coincidence that the landscape of the earth is identical to that of the heart.

The work of Swiss poet and writer, Regina Ullmann, is permeated with an abiding sadness that seems to speak to the core of human existence. Her language, contemplative without moralizing, pierces the surface of the façades we present to the world. Encountering her work, one has the sense that she is drawing on a deep, dark well. But light filters through, creating a canvas that evokes rural and small town life in the early decades of the twentieth century—a world inhabited by farm labourers, young girls and women harbouring secrets, lonely old folk, circus performers, and hunchbacks.

2016-11-11-23-11-09Ullmann was born in Gallen, Switzerland, in 1884, into the family of a Jewish-Austrian businessman. Her father died when she was only a few years old. In 1902, she and her mother moved to Munich, where she would first read a number of the key poets of the day, including Rainer Maria Rilke who would become an important mentor and patron. However, Ullmann’s personal life was difficult. She had two daughters out of wedlock, the second with psychoanalyst Otto Gross, who left her emotionally wounded. Depression dogged her, worsening after her mother’s suicide in 1938. Her conversion to Catholicism in 1911, a move that greatly informed the tone of her work, was not sufficient to prevent her expulsion from the German Writers Association in 1935 on the basis of her Jewish heritage, so she left Germany, spending several years in Austria before relocating to her Swiss birthplace, where she would remain for over twenty years. She returned to Germany only a few months before her death in early 1961.

Throughout her career, Ullmann, won critical praise from the likes of Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse and Robert Musil—in addition to her champion Rilke—but she remained largely unknown and often struggled to make ends meet. She was, perhaps a step out of time, a modernist trailing ghosts of the past, but with the release of her 1921 story collection, The Country Road in English translation (by Kurt Beals, New Directions, 2015), her fragile, haunting work is offered a new lease on life.

And I, for one, was ready to meet her.

From the opening paragraphs of the title story, I was struck by the spare, unforgiving earnestness and sombre beauty of the prose:

Summer, but a younger summer than this one; the summer back then was no more than my equal in years. True, I still wasn’t happy, not happy to my core, but I had to be in the way that everyone is. The sun set me ablaze. It grazed on the green knoll where I sat, a knoll with almost sacred form, where I had taken refuge from the dust of the country road. Because I was weary. I was weary because I was alone. This long country road before and behind me… The bends that it made around this knoll, the poplars—even heaven itself could not relieve my bleakness. I was ill at ease, because just a short way into my walk, this road had already dragged me into its misery and squalor. It was an uncanny country road. An all-knowing road. A road reserved for those who had been, in some way, left alone.

In a sense, this opening sets the tone for the entire collection, evoking a landscape with its illusory freedom that will reappear again and again, balanced against the confined spaces—rented rooms, taverns, houses—occupied by people who often live alone or are drawn into shared solitude. Her narrators tend to affect a dispassionate distance, a non-judgemental piety, whether telling their own stories or imagining the thoughts and motivations of others; however, there is a persistent awareness of social stigmatization against which the most disadvantaged of her characters are regarded or disregarded. Ullmann’s world is one in which deeply burdened souls cross paths, rarely unveiling the true nature of the crosses that they bear.

It is difficult to convey the mood of these stories without implying that this is a catalogue of darkness and despair. There is rather a grounded and humane sadness, an awareness of loss that recurs. But there is more. Throughout the collection, an animated natural world—flowers, forests, gardens, vegetables, berries, stars and blue skies—regularly reminds the reader that an unquenchable beauty does exist against the odds. The story “Strawberries,” one of several tales narrated by a young girl who, like the author, has an older sister and a single mother, captures perfectly the summer magic of childhood:

Perhaps you will argue that the three of us had never learned to go without. But what does it mean to go without—assuming that we really couldn’t do it—if not to take pleasure in looking at things. We returned from our trips to the market feeling sated, and often we hadn’t bought a single bouquet, a single basket of early cherries. And the treasure chests of our minds was wide open. But the little mirror inside that chest had only to reflect the ground; it showed the stand piled high with fruits and vegetables. But we felt how that world, like jewelry and old music, was transformed and passed over into us.

Ullmann’s other worldliness that sees her writing suspended somewhere between modernism and an earlier form of gothic folk tale is best illustrated in “The Old Tavern Sign,” one of the strongest and most striking pieces in the entire collection. It begins with an old tavern “in a hidden corner of Styria,” that stood, “as if it had been left vacant, like an etching made by one soul to tell another just what a house really is.” The story follows the troubled emotions of a young farmhand who falls for a beautiful young girl—deaf-mute and simple-minded—who had been taken in and cared for by the old horsekeeper. The girl, as she grows, remains indifferent to all and everything around her, but her caregiver and the beasts, wild and domestic, protect her and keep her safe. The farmhand knows his affections are misdirected, and struggles to fight his persistent desire to go to the horse pasture:

But if he didn’t know this love, it surely knew him. It always recognized him. It knew if he lifted the pitchfork, how he lifted it, whether he took large steps or stood still, where he stood and dreamt. And when he slept, it took the power of its dreams for its own, and dreamt for him. He was climbing a fir tree, up to the top and then beyond. He didn’t even notice he was past its tip. And so he fell over it, down to the ground, and lay there with dream-shattered limbs, on the edge of the forest, and yet in his bed, and it was night, or morning. It didn’t matter, anyway.

In the end, as human desire meets the force of nature, with savage intensity, Ullmann maintains a measured poetic account that is as breathtaking as it is brutal.

This is a collection that is at once perfectly pitched my current state of sorrow, grief, and depression—and yet stunningly beautiful to read. Ullmann’s vivid imagery, her lost and lonely characters, and the gentle, thoughtful pace of her prose offers unexpected comfort for the weary soul. This is, in the end, an offering of small and tender joys.

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.