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Archive for November, 2011

As the last read for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, in November, I thought I will read two novellas and a short story. This is what I read.

 

The Sandman by E.T.A.Hoffmann

 

 

‘The Sandman’ was first recommended to me by Bina from ‘If You Can Read This’. I finally got a chance to read it today. It is about a young man called Nathaniel, who has lived his childhood fearing someone called ‘The Sandman’. When it is bedtime, his mother tells him that he should go to sleep as otherwise the Sandman will come and take him away. At one point, Nathaniel hears footsteps coming into their house and his mother hurriedly takes him away to his bedroom. Nathaniel thinks it is the actual Sandman entering their home. One day he wants to see the Sandman with his own eyes. So he hides inside his father’s room and waits for this mysterious person. During the appropriate time of the night, the mysterious stranger arrives. He is an old acquaintance of the family whom no one likes. But interestingly, this stranger and Nathaniel’s father get to work on something which looks like sorcery or an alchemical experiment. He screams and faints and is in delirium for weeks. This mysterious person stops coming to their house. A year passes. Then suddenly this mysterious stranger comes back, something happens inside his father’s room, there is an explosion and the father dies. The image of the Sandman is forever seared inside Nathaniel’s heart. Later, after many years, when he is a student at the university, he meets someone who sells barometers and he looks like the mysterious stranger who used to visit his father. Nathaniel gets scared and worried and depressed. An unknown fear possesses him. He writes about this to his fiancée and her brother, who is also his friend. Then strange things start happening in his life. The surprising and tragic turns that Nathaniel’s life takes form the rest of the story.

 

‘The Sandman’ was eerie and scary. I can imagine why it is such a popular classic. We don’t know whether the fears of Nathaniel are based on reality or are a product of his own imagination. At one point Nathaniel’s fiancée writes this to him :

 

“If there is a dark and hostile power, laying its treacherous toils within us, by which it holds us fast and draws us along the path of peril and destruction, which we should not otherwise have trod; if, I say there is such a power, it must form itself inside us and out of ourselves, indeed; it must become identical with ourselves. For it is only in this condition that we can believe in it, and grant it the room which it requires to accomplish its secret work. Now, if we have a mind which is sufficiently firm, sufficiently strengthened by the joy of life, always to recognize this strange enemy as such, and calmly to follow the path of our own inclination and calling, then the dark power will fail in its attempt to gain a form that shall be a reflection of ourselves. Lothaire adds that if we have willingly yielded ourselves up to the dark powers, they are known often to impress upon our minds any strange, unfamiliar shape which the external world has thrown in our way; so that we ourselves kindle the spirit, which we in our strange delusion believe to be speaking to us. It is the phantom of our own selves, the close relationship with which, and its deep operation on our mind, casts us into hell or transports us into heaven.”

 

I found that passage quite powerful. The story also asks some questions on what is possible with science and technology – whether human-like machines can be created. It is interesting that Hoffmann thought about this in the early 19th century.

 

Another passage I liked in the novella was where the narrator of the story wonders how he can start a story. It goes like this :

 

“I was puzzled how to begin Nathaniel’s story in a manner as inspiring, original and striking as possible. ‘Once upon a time,’ the beautiful beginning of every tale, was too tame. ‘In the little provincial town of S____ lived’ – was somewhat better, as it at least prepared for the climax. Or should I dart at once, medias in res, with “‘Go to the devil,” cried the student Nathaniel with rage and horror in his wild looks, when the barometer-dealer, Giuseppe Coppola . . .?'”

 

Interesting analysis of how to start a story, isn’t it? It made me remember Kleist, who includes an unexpected event in the first sentence of his stories and grabs the reader’s attention.

 

I want to read more stories by Hoffmann now. If you would like to read ‘The Sandman’ online, you can find it here.

 

You can find other reviews of this novella, here :

 

Caroline’s Review

Nymeth’s Review

 

The Jews’ Beech by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff

 

 

‘The Jews’ Beech’ was recommended by Caroline in her ’14 German Women Writers You Shouldn’t Miss’ post. As it was short, I thought I will read it. I also found the writer’s name interesting – she must be the writer with the longest name whose work I have read J It is about the life and times of a boy called Friedrich Mergel. The story starts in 1738 and ends towards the end of the 18th century. How this boy grows up to become a young man and the experience he goes through and the strange happenings in the village where he lives form the story. There are thieves who come to the forest near the village and cut trees without permission. The rangers try to catch them but the thieves repeatedly evade them. During this time, one of the rangers is killed. Nobody knows what happened. Some suspicion falls on Friedrich, but he has an alibi. Friedrich has an uncle who seems to have a mysterious background and there is another boy called Johannes who is, strangely, Friedrich’s lookalike. What happens across the years and how the fortunes of Friedrich turn out form the rest of the story.

 

One of the passages from the book, which I really liked, came on the first page of the story and went like this :

 

It is difficult to view that period impartially. Since its disappearance, it has been either arrogantly criticised or absurdly praised, because those who experienced it are blinded by too many dear memories and those born later do not understand it.

 

I read two translations of ‘The Jews’ Beech’ online – here and here. The first one seemed to be closer to the original as it had long sentences and traditional words and constructs. I started with that, but when I lost track of an important element of the story, I went and read the second translation, which had shorter sentences and modern words. However, there were some issues I had with the second translation – for example Friedrich’s mother’s name was anglicized from Margrethe to Margaret. And Johannes Neimand’s name to John Nobody. It made me wonder what is more important in a translation – whether the story has to be conveyed clearly to the reader or whether the style of the author in the original book should be preserved. It made me appreciate the difficulties and intricacies of translation and how one translated version could vary significantly from another.

 

The Beggar Woman of Locarno by Heinrich von Kleist

 

This is a short story by Kleist, which I found here. It is about a beggar woman who is taken into a Marquis’ castle and lives in one of the rooms. Unfortunately, one day the Marquis asks her roughly to move from her corner to near the stove and when the old woman is trying to do that she slips and falls and injures her spine and dies in agony. In later years, the Marquis is not doing well financially and wants to sell-off his castle. Unfortunately the beggar woman’s ghost haunts the room where she lived her last days and the impact this has on the Marquis and his wife forms the rest of the story.

 

I have read only longer short stories and novellas by Kleist till now. This was a ‘short short’ and was around two pages. So it was a breezy read. Kleist also didn’t have the space to squeeze in so many characters in the story, like he normally does J Even then he manages to sneak in four characters!

 

On German Literature Month

 

I had a wonderful time during German Literature Month. It was fun to read new writers and works that I haven’t read before. I discovered many wonderful new writers whose works I would like to explore in the future. I also won two Kleist novellas in a giveaway and I liked both of them very much. My only regret was that I wanted to read a couple of thick books – ‘Every Man Dies Alone’ by Hans Fallada and ‘Ink Heart’ by Cornelia Funke – but because I was away from blogging for a week, I couldn’t do that. I really wanted to read Fallada’s book. I hope to read it next month. When I look at the books I had read, I discovered that I had read lots of novellas and short stories – 7 novellas, 17 short stories. I also read three novels. I hope to read more novels next time.

 

Lots of thanks to Caroline and Lizzy for hosting German Literature Month. Congratulations to all the participants for participating and thanks for all the wonderful posts. I am already looking forward to ‘German Literature Month’ next year.

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I won ‘Michael Kohlhaas’ by Heinrich von Kleist in a giveaway hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, who are also the hosts of German Literature Month in November. I read it in one sitting. Here is what I think.

 

 

What I think

 

‘Michael Kohlhaas’ is about a horse dealer of the same name who is honest and works hard and has a happy family. Once, when he is travelling to the market to sell horses, he is stopped on the way, near a castle, and the castellan asks him to pay the toll charge. He also harasses him asking him for documentation that he doesn’t have. Then, the castellan holds back two of his horses and asks him to come back with the documentation and collect them. When Michael Kohlhaas goes to the city, he asks his friends who work in the government whether any new documentation is required. He discovers that it is not required and that the castellan has just harassed him. He lets things be. After selling the other horses he had brought with him and completing his business he goes back and asks the castellan for his horses. The castellan asks him to take his horses from the stable. When Kohlhaas goes to the stable, he discovers that in his absence, his horses have been worked to death, and are unrecognizable. His groom, who he has left behind to take care of the horses, is missing. The castellan says that the groom didn’t behave himself and so was expelled. Kohlhaas is extremely annoyed, but lets things be. He goes back home and finds his groom, who has been beaten up by the castellan and others and is recovering from his injuries. After listening to the groom’s side of the story, Kohlhaas discovers that he has been taken for a ride. He files a case in a court of law against the owner of the castle, Junker Wenzel von Tronka, asking for his horses to be returned in their original condition. But von Tronka is a knight and has connections everywhere and so Kohlhaas’ case is dismissed. Kohlhaas tries repeatedly to get justice through normal means but his attempts are foiled. His wife tries to help him but it results in her death. Kohlhaas decides to defy the law and find justice for himself. What happens next forms the rest of the story.

 

‘Michael Kohlhaas’ is a vintage Kleist novella. It grips the reader from the first page. Normally the first line of a Kleist novella grabs the reader’s attention, but in this novel, it is the last line of the first page which does that. It goes like this – “But his sense of justice turned him into a brigand and a murderer.” I suspect that out of Kleist’s novellas, this must be the longest at 131 pages. Like a typical Kleist novella, it also has dozens of characters – it is amazing how many characters Kleist manages to squeeze in, in such a short space.

 

‘Michael Kohlhaas’ is the story of a normal man who finds it difficult to get justice on a small issue and ends up fighting the system – the courts, society, the government, the King. It is like an everyday man goes at war with the world. He is clearly the underdog. As readers, we know that the odds are stacked against him, but we root for him. We hope he wins in the end. We hope he is happy in the end and continues with his normal life. Michael Kohlhaas wins. But he opens a Pandora’s Box while doing that and this leads to not-so-good consequences for him.

 

An innocent man pitted against the might of the world is a theme which has been frequently exploited by writers and movie-makers. I didn’t know that the original version of this theme was first envisioned by Kleist in this novella. My favourite movie versions of this theme are ‘Payback’ (which has Mel Gibson) and the Tamil movie ‘Dhool’ (which has Vikram and Jyothika). Both of them have happy endings. ‘Payback’ seems to have been inspired by an older movie which was based on a novel and I think if we dig deeper we will end up at the footsteps of Kleist’s book.

 

I haven’t read Kleist’s ‘The Marquise of O-‘ yet, but till I get to it, I have to say that ‘Michael Kohlhaas’ is my favourite novella of his. I discovered that there is a 1969 German movie version of this book. I want to see that sometime.

 

Other Reviews

 

Tony’s Review

 

Have you read ‘Michael Kohlhaas’ or other novellas of Kleist? What do you think about this or other books of his?

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I won ‘The Duel’ by Heinrich von Kleist in a giveaway hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, who are also the hosts of German Literature Month in November. I read it in one sitting. Here is what I think.

 

 

What I think

 

‘The Duel’ is a short novella. It is around fifty pages. It is smaller in size when compared to regular paperbacks. The edition I read was published by Melville Press and it has a distinctive, unique look. The paper was quite beautiful and the font was delightful. It was a pleasure to read. The first thing I thought of, while reading the book and after finishing it, was what would happen, when the whole world moves to e-readers and e-books and paper books become a thing of the past. Yes, we will save trees, which is a good thing. But the feeling of holding a beautiful book in one’s hand, turning over the pages, taking in the fragrance of the paper, taking pleasure in the touch and feel of the paper, revelling in the delight of a beautiful font – all this is going to be lost. Anne Fadiman says in her essay ‘Never do that to a book’ that to her and her family what mattered most were the words in a book and a book’s look and feel and whether the pages were dog-eared or had stains were not important. I am guessing Fadiman wouldn’t have any issues in moving to an e-reader and staying there. But I will miss all these if I start using an e-reader. I am not a Luddite. I love the kind of changes new devices bring. I love the fact that one can get a new book on an e-reader the day it gets released. And I also love the fact that one can change the font-size of an e-book to suit one’s needs. I also know that I can put my whole book collection inside an e-reader. But I will miss all the beauty and the delights that a paper book offers. Maybe I am an old-fashioned romantic.

 

Before I write about Kleist’s book, I wanted to write about something else. I discovered through the book that there are other books called ‘The Duel’. The others were written by Giacomo Casanova, Anton Chekhov, Joseph Conrad and Alexander Kuprin. I have read the one by Casanova. I have the one by Anton Chekhov in a collection. I want to read that and the other two novellas too. Maybe I will do ‘The Duel reading festival’ J I have read one by Georgette Heyer called ‘The Duel’, but that is more a short story than a novella.

 

The simplified plot of ‘The Duel’ goes like this – a Duke is killed one day by an arrow and the Duchess gets his kingdom. The Duke has an estranged half-brother, Count Rotbart, who could have disputed the fact that the Duchess got the kingdom but he behaves gracefully. Things go well, till it is discovered that the arrow which killed the Duke came from his half-brother’s armoury. The half-brother protests against this and says that he is innocent and on the night the Duke was killed, he was in the company of a beautiful noblewoman called Littegarde. Rotbart shows evidence in support of his claim and which look convincing. Littegarde denies this, but she is not able to bring independent witnesses to support her denial. One of Littegarde’s admirers, a knight who was also the slain Duke’s chamberlain, tries to help her and save her honour. He challenges Count Rotbart to a duel. Interesting things take place during the duel and after surprising twists and turns the story reaches an interesting conclusion.

 

I liked ‘The Duel’ because it is a vintage von Kleist story. The themes and ideas that Kleist explores are all there – the unexpected surprising start, the way events unfold in people’s lives suddenly like a storm, how these events toss people to unexpected highs and lows and how it all ends in a surprising way. The first Kleist story I read was ‘The Earthquake in Chile’. It had a sad ending with a thin silver lining. ‘The Duel’ has a happy ending. Kleist must have been in a good mood when he wrote this story.

 

I can’t wait to read my next Kleist book. Which is ‘Michael Kohlhaas’. I am also going to check Melville House’s catalogue and buy all their books. They have a real awesome collection.

 

Other Reviews

 

Caroline’s Review

 

Have you read any books by Heinrich von Kleist? What do you think about them?

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This is the third and final week of the Effi Briest readalong. Here are my answers to the readalong questions for the third week.

 

 

Why do you think Effi kept Crampas’s letters?

 

It was quite interesting that Effi kept Crampas’ letters. Maybe she didn’t want to let go off her affair and she had those letters so that she can read them sometime and be reminded of the good times she had, though they might not have been socially acceptable.

 

Did Innstetten have a choice?

 

I think as an individual, Innstetten had a choice. But as he says sometimes society dictates how one lives and it is difficult to defy those norms. And if one defies those norms, then one might become an outcast. It takes a lot of courage to defy norms. This is true even today in the 21st century. But the fact is that Innstetten stil had a choice. If he had wanted, he could have defied norms. Or he could have kept the affair quiet.

 

Are there any events in this final section that make you feel outraged?  Is that how Fontane wants you to feel?

 

I felt sad at the way the story took the turn it did. I was hoping that Innstetten would show some character and talk things over with his wife and calm things down. But he didn’t. I was hoping that Effi’s reunion with her daughter will go off well. But it didn’t. I was hoping that Effi will find joy in being an artist and will meet someone her age who is interesting and exciting. It didn’t happen. And the ending was so sad.

 

Is there a villain in this piece?

 

I don’t think there is a villain in the story. I think the strength of the novel is that it depicts people as complex, paradoxical, imperfect and realistic beings.

 

Discuss Effi’s reaction to her mother’s accusation “You brought it on yourself”.          

 

I felt sorry that Effi believed that she was wrong and her husband was right. I will put it down to 19th century values, but there were circumstances which led Effi to do what she did and I think her husband could have been kinder and more sensitive to her and tried to understand her instead of pulling the trigger. Especially when, if the situation had been reversed, and if it had been Innstetten who had been having an affair, he wouldn’t have suffered the way Effi did. Things might have gone merrily for him. Unless he had a rival who challenged him to a duel and shot him like he did Crampas. But I guess this is me trying to impose 21st century sensibilities into a 19th century novel. The position of women in those days was, regrettably, not equal to that of men. Any amount of ranting by me is not going to change that. Fontane describes this aspect of his era quite realistically.

 

The lot of the real-life Effi, Elizabeth von Plotho, was a much happier one. Why do you think Fontane made the outcome for Effi much harder?

 

I was surprised to know that Effi’s character was based on the real-life Elizabeth von Plotho. When I read more about her, I could imagine how the story of Effi Briest must have emanated with readers of that era, because it was based on the life of a real person. I am not sure whether Elizabeth von Plotho’s story had a happy ending – because she seems to have suffered the same way as Effi did. But, fortunately, she got reconciled with her children and also outlived her husband by more than thirty years. But her sufferings while being ostracized from her family and community were probably very real. Fontane has probably depicted the life of Effi quite similarly except for the ending.

 

Were you surprised by the ending?

 

I was surprised and saddened. A more life affirmative ending would have been to build on Effi’s interest in art which could have resulted in her being a famous artist in the end. But probably a 19th century audience wouldn’t have accepted that kind of ending – the redemption of an adulteress. It is amazing how reading taste and cultural values have changed so much in a century.

 

Where would you place Effi in the pantheon of C19th fictional adulteresses?

 

I haven’t read the other two novels with which ‘Effi Briest’ is compared – ‘Madame Bovary’ and ‘Anna Karenina’. So, it is difficult for me to answer this question. I would say that ‘Effi Briest’ probably gives a German perspective on this topic.

 

Do you think you would ever reread Effi Briest?

 

I hope to read atleast some of my favourites passages again. One of my favourites was :

 

Everything that is to give us pleasure must come at the right time and in the right circumstances, for what delights us today may be valueless tomorrow. Innstetten felt this deeply, and as certainly as he had formerly laid store by honors and distinctions coming from his highest superiors, just so certainly was he now firmly convinced that the glittering appearance of things amounted to but little, and that what is called happiness, if it existed at all, is something other than this appearance. “Happiness, if I am right, lies in two things: being exactly where one belongs–but what official can say that of himself?–and, especially, performing comfortably the most commonplace functions, that is, getting enough sleep and not having new boots that pinch. When the 720 minutes of a twelve-hour day pass without any special annoyance that can be called a happy day.”

 

If I get to learn German sometime, maybe I will try to read this book in German.

 

You can find links to replies of other readalong participants here.

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I discovered ‘Three Bags Full’ by Leonie Swann during one of my random browsing sessions at the bookshop. I thought I will read it for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. I did a readathon yesterday and finished the book. This is what I think.

What I think

Glennkill is a village and a meadow in Ireland. One morning the sheep which graze there discover that their shepherd, George Glenn, is dead, with a spade driven through his body. They want to find out who killed their beloved shepherd. Soon the village people discover the shepherd’s body. And the police come in and investigations start. But nobody is able to find anything. Meanwhile, the sheep, led by the intelligent Miss Maple (named after you-know-who), start their own process of detection. They use their sharp sheep intelligence and soon they discover interesting things about the village and the people who live there and about their shepherd George. How they find the killer of George and what happens in the end form the rest of the story.

I found ‘Three Bags Full’ interesting because the whole story is told from the sheep’s point of view. Miss Maple is the smartest among the sheep and she leads the investigation. Mopple the Whale accompanies her because he is the one who has the best memory. Othello the black ram joins in too, because he is courageous. Other sheep join in at different times – Maude and Heather and Rameses and Cloud and Zora and Sir Ritchfield and Cordelia. Even a lamb which doesn’t have a name joins in at times. There is also a mysterious sheep called Melmoth which joins in after a while and contributes to the investigation with his intelligence and his worldly experience.

I liked the book for some of the descriptions which Leonie Swann gives. Not long ones. But short, one sentence or one phrase descriptions.  Like this :

They were standing on the cliffs between the watery-blue sky and the sky-blue sea.

And this :

The sea looked as if it had been licked clean, blue and clear and smooth…

And this :

A gentle breeze softly fanned their fears away…

And this :

The horizon was rosy as a March lamb’s nuzzle now.

And this :

…their tension melted away like mist.

And this :

A hot wind was blowing through his shaggy fleece, making the wool ripple like trembling gray flames.

And this :

Out there dark had fallen. Dense, velvety night air, incredibly sweet and clear, streamed into his nostrils.

And this :

When Melmoth told them something, it was like a strange wind caressing their faces, a wind spiced with vague presentiments and mysterious scents.

The mystery when it was resolved wasn’t so surprising, but the way the sheep went about resolving the mystery was delightful and fascinating. On the way, the author talks, through the sheep’s voices, about the art and science of detection and how an author can nudge readers in a particular direction by giving false clues. For example, there is a passage which goes like this :

The sheep knew what investigating meant; they had heard the word in the detective story. During investigations the detective delves into other people’s business and gets into difficulties.

In another place Miss Maple says this about suspects :

“Have you noticed something? A little while ago no one would have thought it of Gabriel, because we liked him. And now he’s a suspect, because we don’t like him anymore. Perhaps we’re making a mistake. The murderer could be someone we like.”

In another place she says this about how things may not perfectly fit in a murder puzzle :

“…perhaps not everything has to fit. Perhaps it’s a mistake to think that everything always has to fit together. In that detective story it was all supposed to fit, and then it got tangled up, and George threw the book away. Perhaps the answer is that many things simply don’t fit. Things that we think are connected, but really they don’t have anything to do with each other.”

There were many delightful passages in the story. Some of my favourites :

She thought of the day when she brought her first lamb into the world, she thought of the pain, and the anxiety later, because the lamb had been brown as earth, even after she had spent ages carefully licking the blood off his coat. Brown as earth, with a black face. Later the brown would turn a woolly white, but Zora wasn’t to know that at the time. She had wondered why she was the only sheep in the meadow not to have had a white lamb. But then the lamb had bleated, tiny and brown as he was, and he had a more beautiful voice than any of the other lambs. He had smelled good too. And Zora knew she would defend him against the whole world, whether or not he was the brown color of earth.

What do the sheep do in the flock? They grazed and rested. What would he do without a flock? Graze and rest, of course. Anything else was just imagination.

“A flock of sheep can be herded because you know something about them. You know they’ll stay together. They’ll do all they can to stay together. That’s why you can herd them. You can’t herd a single sheep on its own. A sheep on its own is unpredictable. Sometimes being alone is an advantage.”

      What helped him was the wind.

      For the wind brought with it – who knew from where? – a leaf, and laid it carefully in front of Othello’s hooves. A golden leaf. Autumn gold. Swallow-flying time. The time of scents, mating time. Once again he turned back to the meadow, where Mopple, Maple, Zora, and Cloud were gazing reverently at a gray cloud. But he saw none of them. What he saw, scented, felt with all seven senses and several brand-new autumn senses too, were three dazzling beauties with white fleeces and intoxicating scents. And a rival, young and strong but inexperienced.

 

I enjoyed reading ‘Three Bags Full’. One of my favourite lines from the book’s blurb went like this – “It’s…as if Agatha Christie had rewritten The Wind in the Willows…” Isn’t that perfectly put?

If you like cozy mysteries with animal characters, you will like ‘Three Bags Full’

Have you read ‘Three Bags Full’? What do you think about it?

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This is the second week of the Effi Briest readalong. I could’t post about it last week, because I joined the readalong quite late. Here are my answers to the readalong questions for the second week.

What strikes you most in this novel,  what do you like or dislike the most?

I like the descriptions of Effi’s house in the initial part of the book – about how Effi is a playful girl who is playing with her friends and how in less than an hour her life is going to change in a fundamental way. I also found it interesting that Fontane doesn’t describe the major events in the novel – for example, Effi’s wedding or the music session by Marietta Trippelli. (I don’t know whether this is the translator’s doing or whether Fontane himself shies away from describing these events. I assumed that Fontane was the one who did it.) For some reason Fontane shies away from describing these important events in the novel. Even the affair between Effi and Crampas, which is an important part of the novel, is implied rather than described. I found this quite interesting. It seemed like Fontane wanted the reader to read closely and work hard to follow the story. Or he seemed to imply that what we consider important and what we consider common place in our lives, are all the same in the long run. I don’t know what Fontane thought, but I found this aspect of the novel quite interesting.

Do you think Fontane likes Effi? Whose side is he on?

Effi is the heroine of the novel and Fontane takes a lot of space in describing the events surrounding her life. I am not sure whose side Fontane is on. I felt that he tried to describe nineteenth century German values quite realistically and beautifully in the book and tries to show the world of that era from different perspectives.

What do you make of the story of the Chinese and the haunted house. How would you interpret it? And what about Crampas’ interpretation?

The story of the Chinaman and the haunted house was quite interesting. It succeeded in providing an eerie and haunting atmosphere for part of the book. I don’t know whether this is a feature of nineteenth century German literature, because I am discovering haunting and eerie descriptions in novels by different nineteenth century German authors. The haunting of the upstairs room seems to be real from Effi’s perspective. But as readers, we are not sure whether this is just a dream or a hallucination of Effi as a result of her conversation with her husband and her maid on the Chinaman, or whether the haunting is real. Crampas’ interpretation of the haunted room is interesting. I didn’t like it when I read it, because it looked like a smooth guy’s way of poisoning a girl’s heart. But when I read the book further, I wasn’t sure. Because there seemed to be some element of truth in what Crampas said that her husband was using the haunted house description to make his wife think in a particular way.

Descriptions are an important part in Effi Briest. How do you like them and how important do you think they are for the novel?

I liked the descriptions in ‘Effi Briest’. The descriptions in the initial part of the book which describe Effi’s carefree life are a pleasure to read. One of my favourite descriptions in the book comes in the last chapter (so this is a spoiler). It goes like this :

The only one who remained calm during the welcoming scene was Rollo himself, who either had no appreciation of time or considered the separation as an irregularity which was now simply removed. The fact that he had grown old also had something to do with it, no doubt. He remained sparing with his demonstrations of affection as he had been with his evidences of joy, during the welcoming scene. But he had grown in fidelity, if such a thing were possible. He never left the side of his mistress. The hunting dog he treated benevolently, but as a being of a lower order. At night he lay on the rush mat before Effi’s door; in the morning, when breakfast was served out of doors by the sundial, he was always quiet, always sleepy, and only when Effi arose from the breakfast table and walked toward the hall to take her straw hat and umbrella from the rack, did his youth return. Then, without troubling himself about whether his strength was to be put to a hard or easy test, he ran up the village road and back again and did not calm down till they were out in the fields.

It struck me while I was reading this novel how Fontane pairs descriptions of cozy and scary. Did you notice this as well and if so, what did you make of this?

I didn’t notice this when I read the book. But when I think about it now, I think it is true. Fontane’s pairing of contrasting situations – cozy and scary –  is quite interesting. He definitely plays with opposites to create an interesting effect.

What do you think of Crampas?

I didn’t like Crampas much. His character is not really explored in depth in the book, though it serves an important part in the central theme of the book. He starts out as a playboy kind of character, and I didn’t find that changing much. Though towards the end I found it sad to read about him.

Fontane chose to describe more than one Christmas in this novel, what do you think Christmas signifies?

Fontane describes the contrasting Christmas weeks during different times of the novel. They reveal the pulse of the current moment in the story – the initial happy days of Effi’s married life, the days leading to her affair with Crampas and the time when she spends Christmas alone, cutoff from the world. In one way, reading the description of Effi’s Christmas during these three times, we can discover the central theme and plot of the story and its ebbs and flows.

What kind of mother is Effi?

She loves her daughter and accepts her as she is. And later pines for her. And is disappointed with her reunion with her daughter.

Where will the novel go from here? What do you think will happen next?

At the end of Chapter 24, Effi has settled down in Berlin and the second phase of her life has started. We hope that it will be peaceful for her and her family and the uncomfortable events of the past are forgotten. But the past has a way of coming back into one’s life. So, it will be interesting to wait and see what happens.

You can find the link to other participants’ readalong posts here.

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I know that the second week of German Literature Month is dedicated to German crime fiction. But I thought I will read more of one of the authors whom I discovered last week, first, before tackling some German crime fiction. I loved Theodor Storm’s ‘Immensee’ when I read it last week. So, this week I thought I will read Storm’s ‘The Rider on the White Horse’ which was recommended to me by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, who is hosting German Literature Month with Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. I got Storm’s book and read it today. I finished it sometime back. Here is what I think.

 

 

What I think

 

‘The Rider on the White Horse’ is a story set in a small North German village. It is told by a narrator, who seems to be the author, but we are not sure. The narrator says that he read this story half a century ago, in his great-grandmother’s place, in a newspaper. The story in the newspaper is told by another storyteller. This storytelling traveller is riding through a storm, despite his friend warning him to stay back in the warmth of the home, because he has some urgent business. On the way, he suddenly sees a ghostly white horse with a rider brushing past him in the opposite direction. The horse and the rider come back and pass him again. In a short while, the storyteller arrives at a village inn. He goes in and discovers that a few people – the dykemaster and a few dyke overseers – are having a conversation. He joins them. After a short while he tells them about the white horse and the strange horseman. Everyone becomes silent. When the traveller asks them about it, the dykemaster says that there is a story behind the white horse and its rider. The dykemaster asks the local village schoolmaster to tell the story. While the storm rages outside, the schoolmaster tells the story of Hauke Haien, how he was a lonely and an intelligent boy, how he got interested in mathematics, design and related topics, how he went to work at the place of the dykemaster of that time and how he fell in love with the dykemaster’s daughter Elke. The schoolmaster’s story goes on to tell the story of Hauke and Elke, how they get married and how Hauke becomes the dykemaster after many years, realizing his dream and how he planned a major project of building a new dyke, how it turned out to be a tremendous success but made a lot of people in the village suspicious of him and how a small flaw in the dyke and the violence of nature lead to disastrous consequences in the end.

 

‘The Rider on the White Horse’ evokes the haunting atmosphere of the North Frisian landscape, with its farms, dykes, storms and floods. I liked that aspect of the book very much. It also gives an interesting picture of North Frisian people and their culture. The book also contrasts reason with superstition – Hauke Haien wants to use logic while building a dyke, while the people of the village who are working with him are superstitious and suspect him. Many haunting visions appear throughout the story – the ghostly horse with its strange rider, a mermaid, strange creatures that Hauke sees near the dyke, when he is young, and which he sees again later, when he comes there as an adult with his young daughter. We are not sure whether these visions are optical illusions or whether they actually are what they seem to indicate. The reader is expected to form his / her own conclusions based on which side of the divide he / she is in. The story has a sad ending – how can it be otherwise, when it happens in the middle of a storm?

 

I liked ‘The Rider on the White Horse’ for the haunting images it evokes. I can’t wait to read more of Storm’s novellas.

 

If you would like to read ‘The Rider on the White Horse’ online, you can find it here.

 

Have you read ‘The Rider on the White Horse’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Homecoming’ by Bernhard Schlink a few years back during one of my random browsing sessions at the bookstore. Schlink was more famous for his book ‘The Reader’ which was made into a movie of the same name and which won Kate Winslet her first Oscar. ‘Homecoming’ appealed to me because of its bookish cover and the plot. I thought I will read it for German Literature Month. It was gripping from the first page to the last. I finished reading it today. Here is what I think.

What I think

‘Homecoming’ is the story of a boy, Peter Debauer, who discovers a few pages in his grandparents’ home which have the story of the homecoming of a German soldier who escaped a Russian POW camp after the Second World War. But, unfortunately, the ending of the story is missing and the boy is not able to find it even after searching for it in his grandparents’ home. In later years, after the boy has grown up, he doesn’t forget this story and later in adult life, he resumes his search for the story ending. He discovers that the house described in the book resembles a real house and starts his investigation there. He also wants to know more about his mysterious father, who is supposedly killed in the Second World War and about whom his mother is silent. He goes on a quest to find the story ending and the secret behind the disappearance of his own father. The shocking secrets that Peter discovers and how the two story arcs come together form the rest of the book.

 

I loved ‘Homecoming’. I loved it first for its bookish cover. I also loved it for the pleasant font and the font spacing. The generous font spacing made me read faster than usual and I couldn’t believe the rollicking pace at which the story moved. I am not able to tell whether this was because of the font and the spacing or whether it was because the story was fast-paced. Despite the rollicking pace, the story didn’t shy away from complex ideas, like the distinction and deep connection between good and evil, the deconstruction of law and the complex nature of love. Bernhard Schlink also doesn’t write those page long sentences which German writers are fond of, but writes shorter sentences, though some of them are a few lines long. (I don’t know whether this was truly the case, or whether it was because the translator did it that way. Sometimes, in a translated work of literature, we don’t know how much of the translation owes to the original writer and how much to the translator.) I think this must have also contributed to the fast pace of the book.

 

Starting from the first paragraph which went like this :

 

When I was young, I spent the summer holidays with my grandparents in Switzerland. My mother would take me to the station and put me on the train, and when I was lucky I could stay put and arrive six hours later at the platform where Grandfather would be waiting for me. When I was less lucky, I had to change trains at the border. Once I took the wrong train and sat there in tears until a friendly conductor dried them and after a few stations put me on another train, entrusting me to another conductor, who then in similar fashion handed me on to the next, so that I was transported to my goal by a whole relay of conductors.

 

the book gripped me till the end. I liked the description of the narrator’s time with his grandparents during summer, how rural Switzerland looked like, how his grandparents loved literature and poetry and history and how the narrator fell in love for the first time.

 

Schlink paints precise, interesting portraits of different characters in the book and I liked that aspect of the novel very much. For example, here is a description of Peter’s grandparents.

 

I don’t know whether it was a happy marriage; I didn’t even know whether it makes sense to speak of the happiness of their marriage or whether they ever thought about it. They lived a life together, took the good with the bad, respected each other, relied on each other. I never once saw them have a serious argument, though they often teased and even poked fun at each other. They took pleasure in being together and showing themselves together, he the dignified personage he had become in his old age, she the beautiful woman she had remained.

 

The descriptions of his mother, by the narrator, Peter, are some of the most interesting passages in the book. Here is one :

 

She would have been a good doctor : she was precise, she had a good eye for what mattered and what did not, and she kept on top of things. What she lacked in warmth, she would have made up for in vigilance and commitment : her patients might not have liked her, but they would certainly have felt they were in good hands.

 

And another :

 

Sometimes I brought all the ingredients and cooked. My mother did not like to cook and was not good at it : I was raised on bread, cold cuts, and warmed-up canned foods. Seldom did I see her so happy and gay, so girlish, as when I was at work at the stove and she was doing some unimportant task for me or was simply on her first glass of champagne.

 

And another :

 

My mother was good at making me feel guilty. It was the way she brought me up to be good in school, to do my house and garden chores, to deliver my magazines on time, and to see to the needs of my friends. The privilege of getting an education, living in a nice house with a nice garden, having the money to pay for necessities (let along extras), enjoying the company of friends and of a loving mother – all this had to be earned; moreover, it had to be earned with a smile : my mother had solved the conflict between duty and desire by decreeing that I was to desire to do my duty.

 

In another place, Peter describes his relationship with his mother in a beautiful passage. It goes like this :

 

The relationship between single mothers and only sons has a bit of the married couple to it. This does not make it a happy one : it can be just as loveless and aggressive, just as much of a power struggle as a marriage. As in marriage, though in its own way, there is no third party or parties – no father, no siblings – to drain off the tension that inevitably arises in so intimate an association. The tension does not truly dissipate until the son leaves the mother, and often the dissipation takes the form of a nonrelationship much like that of a divorced couple. It may also turn into a lively, intimate, tension-free relationship, and after years of going through the motions with my mother – seldom making trouble and always a bit bored – I was looking forward to our week together as a promise of better things to come.

 

One of the interesting things that made me smile in the book was that for quite a while, we don’t know the narrator’s name. I had crossed nearly one-third of the book and still I didn’t know the narrator’s name. I wanted to find out how long the author was going to carry on with this game and whether he will ever reveal the narrator’s name in the end. Then suddenly there is a scene, where the narrator meets the heroine, Barbara, and he says ‘My name is Debauer. Peter Debauer.

 

One of my favourite parts of the book was the depiction of the relationship between Peter and Barbara. It starts with how they first meet when Peter is trying to discover the ending of the story, and then it describes how they fall in love, Barbara’s complex background, how their relationship goes through ups and downs and whether they get back together in the end. It is a delightful subplot to the overall theme of the book and I liked it more than the main story. Barbara was one of my favourite characters in the story, starting from how she looked, the way she smiled and what she said. Some of my most favourite passages in the book were about the love between Peter and Barbara. For example there is this conversation which is one of my favourites :

 

‘Is it important to you that we be married? It makes no difference to me.’

      ‘Well, it does to me.’

      ‘Are you afraid we’d lose each other the way we did the last time?’

      ‘Let’s say I learned then how strong the bonds of matrimony can be. I think you really loved me, yet you stood by your husband.’

      ‘Not because he was my husband. He fought for me; you sulked.’ The dimple over her eyebrow had come out, and her voice was hard. ‘Have you forgotten? Have you forgotten that I called you, called you again and again? That I stood in front of your door and knocked and shouted? That I wrote to you? But you preferred to make a victim of yourself, the poor man ill used by the evil woman.’

 

And this conversation :

 

‘I love this place. It’s a good place. I love its big, bright rooms, I love the balcony, I used to take my nap on, even when it rained. You can hear the rain in the trees, hear the birds singing, and the air is cool, but you’ve got a roof over your head and you pull the warm blanket up over your ears and you feel safe. Try it sometime.’

      I thought of the daily nap I took during the first few summers I spent with my grandparents. If it was warm enough, I could take it on the balcony, and when it rained they covered me with a blanket, just as Barbara had described. How could I have forgotten?

 

And this beautiful description :

 

I was too happy with Barbara, happy to wake up with her, shower with her, happy that we would brush our teeth and hair together, that she would put on her makeup while I shaved. I loved our breakfast conversations about the shopping to be done, the errands to be run, the plans for the evening; I loved coming home to her, seeing her get up from her desk, feeling her arms around my neck or, if I came home first, looking forward to seeing her and spending the evening with her, whether at home or on the town, and then preparing for bed together and knowing that if I happened to wake up in the night I would hear her breathing and it would take nothing at all to touch her or snuggle up to her or wake her. Sometimes she teased me, saying, ‘What a bourgeois match I’ve made. You’d be happy just to stay at home and read, listen to music, watch television, and chat, plus an occasional promenade along the river.’ But she would laugh as she said it. ‘What do you mean?’ I would say, laughing along with her. ‘I like walking up the hill too.’

      Had she wanted me to, I would have taken her every night to a movie or play or concert or to see friends. But it wasn’t staying home that I enjoyed; it was the routine of love.

 

When Peter’s and Barbara’s relationship went through ups and downs, I, alternatively, rejoiced and panicked. My heart went through a rollercoaster ride and I dreaded what will happen in the end, because I really liked both of them and wanted them to end up together and happy. Schlink kept me in tenterhooks till the end, before I could discover whether they ended up happy.

 

The story is structured like Homer’s epic ‘The Odyssey’ – both the story that Peter reads and his own quest for the ending of that story and the secret behind his father’s disappearance.

 

One of the things I noticed in the story was the way time lapses. Sometimes a day or an hour is described in many pages. Sometimes whole years and decades lapse, in a few lines, in the blink of an eye. At one point of time, the narrator has passed out of university and is working with a publisher. He is having problems in his love life and his quest for the secrets he is searching for is not getting anywhere. At that point, I thought he must be in his late twenties. Then suddenly the narrator says that he is forty-five! I didn’t see that the years have passed by in a blink. I saw the whole story in a different light, then.

 

There were beautiful passages in the book on history, deconstruction, law and ethical dilemmas. Like this :

 

History is clearly in no hurry. It respect daily activities like work, shopping, cooking, and eating; it understands that bureaucratic processes, sporting events, and get-togethers with family and friends must go on. Presumably the same rules applied to the French Revolution : it is all very well to storm the Bastille on July 14, but on July 15 the cobbler must return to his last, the tailor to his needle; they must make up for lost time. After a morning at the guillotine, back to nailing and sewing. What is there to do all day at a Bastille already stormed? Or a Wall already scaled?

 

And this :

 

I learned that deconstruction is the separation of a text from what the author meant it to say and its transformation into what the reader makes of it; I learned that it went even further to reject the notion of reality in favor of the texts we write and read about reality…As far as I could make out, if texts are not about what the author meant to say but what the reader makes of them, then the reader, not the author, is responsible for the text; if reality is not the world out there but the text we write and read about it, then the responsibility for murder falls on neither the real murderers nor their victims – they having lost their existence – but on their contemporaries who lodge the complaints and prosecute the plaintiffs.

 

And this :

 

What we take for reality is merely a text, what we take for texts merely interpretations. Reality and texts are therefore what we make of them. History has no goal : there is no progress, no promise of rise after fall, no guarantee of victory for the strong or justice for the weak. We can interpret it as if it had a goal, and there is nothing objectionable in that, because we must always ‘act as if’ – as if reality were more than text, as if the author were speaking to us in the text, as if good and evil, right and wrong, truth and lies actually existed, and as if the institutions of law actually functioned. We have the choice of either droning back what had been droned into us or deciding for ourselves what we want to make of the world, who we want to be in it, and what we want to do in it. We come to our truth, which enables us to make decisions, in extreme, existential, exceptional situations. The validity of our decisions makes itself felt in the commitment we make to carrying them out and the responsibility we take for carrying them out, responsibility in the sense of the iron rule…

 

I made a list of stories, poems and books which were mentioned in the book, which I want to read. The list has the following.

 

  • John Maynard by Theodor Fontane
  • Hutten’s Last Days by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer
  • Clothes Make the Man by Gottfried Keller
  • As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me by Josef Martin Bauer

 

I loved ‘Homecoming’. I loved the beautiful passages, the love story of Peter and Barbara, the wonderful character sketches, the font, the line spacing and the bookish cover. It is a book which satisfied me in every way. I want to read more books by Bernhard Schlink. All of them 🙂

 

Have you read this book or any other books by Bernhard Schlink? What do you think of them?

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This is November. And it is time for German literature month 🙂 Hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. You can find the homepage of this challenge with introductory posts, information on readalongs and giveaways, the list of participants and potential books that will be read, here.

 

I wrote a post on the books that I wanted to read for German Literature Month. As it always happens, after one makes plans, I changed the plan when November arrived. I had two short story collections which had German stories and I decided to read them first. One was a collection of German stories and it had creations by many of the masters there. The second one was a collection of short stories from across the world and it had a German section. I started reading the stories on Tuesday and finished the last story today.

 

The Stories

 

These are the stories I read (by alphabetical order of the author’s last name).

 

Flagman Thiel by Gerhart Hauptmann – Flagman Thiel works in a bunk in a remote forest and his job is to open the gate and show the flag when the train passes. He has a son by his first wife whom his current wife treats badly. But Thiel likes being left alone and allowing the house to be run by his wife. How long can he ignore the unfair situation at home and bear the pressure in his heart? Unfortunately, something tragic happens and suddenly the taut string in his heart breaks and all hell breaks loose. An interesting story on what happens when a nice guy is pushed to the edge.

 

Gods in Exile by Heinrich Heine – It tries to picture what Greek gods who were expelled from people’s hearts and minds after the advent of Christianity might be doing today. The last scene where Zeus cries after discovering the status of his beloved temple is very poignant.

 

Harry’s Loves by Hermann Hesse – It describes Harry’s loves at different times in his life. I suspect that this is an excerpt, probably from Hesse’s novel ‘Steppenwolf’. I suspect that because the name ‘Steppenwolf’ appears many times in the story.

 

A Country Doctor by Franz Kafka – It is about a country doctor who has to go to a patient’s home urgently, but there is no coach available. Very Kafkaesque, with a lot of fantastic elements open to different kinds of interpretation, and very difficult to understand (atleast for me).

 

The Married Couple by Franz Kafka – Another typical Kafka story. Though I could connect with the story better. It is about how a couple who are married for many years are connected to each other in a very deep way from different perspectives.

 

The Naughty Saint Vitalis by Gottfried Keller – Vitalis is an unconventional monk. Every night he goes to disreputable houses, and prays for the beautiful girl who practises her profession there, for the whole night. Most of the time, the concerned girl gets frustrated by Vitalis’ strange behaviour but by morning her heart has changed and she reforms her ways and joins a convent. But then Vitalis meets a girl, whom he is not able to change despite his repeated visits. And more interestingly, Vitalis has a young admirer who lives in the neighbourhood, who wants to change him. What happens next is the rest of the story.

 

The Earthquake in Chile by Heinrich von Kleist – It is about two lovers whose love is not accepted by their elders and society and how an earthquake, which brings misery to everyone, brings them back together and brings happiness and joy to them. And how all this taken away again at the blink of an eye.

 

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler – I didn’t know this when I read it, but I discovered that ‘Darkness at Noon’ is a novel. What I read appears to be an excerpt from the last part of the novel. It is about the execution of a prisoner in a country which is very similar to the former Soviet Union of the 1930s-40s and his thoughts on the hours preceding his execution. It was very poignant with beautiful passages. Also, isn’t that such a wonderful title – beautiful, dark, terrifying – making us want to find out what happens in the story.

 

Three Minute Novel by Heinrich Mann – The narrator describes his love life in a kaleidoscope of quickly transitioning images.

 

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann – A writer decides to get out of his comfort zone and long work days and tries to do something adventurous – that is he goes on a holiday. He goes to Venice. He notices a Polish family staying at the same hotel as him and one of his chief pleasures is to observe what they are doing everyday. He is particularly attracted to the young son and at one point falls in love with that beautiful boy. This unexpected sway of his heart makes him question his past and his life.

 

Disorder and Early Sorrow by Thomas Mann – Describes a party in a professor’s house and how a young girl experiences the first stirrings and pangs of love in her heart.

 

How Old Timofei Died Singing by Rainer Maria Rilke – Old Timofei sings in his village and is the best singer among all the neighbouring villages. In Timofei’s profession there is a tradition that all the songs that the father knows are taught to the son who will carry on the legacy. But Timofei’s son has had a quarrel with him, married a beautiful girl and left home to live in another city. Timofei is getting old and there is no one to whom he wants to pass on his songs and his legacy. Will Timofei’s son return back? Or will Timofei take away all his beautiful songs with him?

 

The Tale of the Hands of God by Rainer Maria Rilke – What were the Hands of God doing when man was created? This story tries to answer that.

 

The Sport of Destiny by Johann von Schiller – It is about a young man who becomes the prince’s favourite and how that impacts his life and career and the ups and downs he has. The story painted a picture of how capricious destiny is.

 

The Dead are Silent by Arthur Schnitzler – A man and married woman are having an affair. During one of their clandestine meetings, the coach they are travelling is overturned, overthrowing the man and the woman. The woman is not hurt but the man falls unconscious. What does the woman do? Does she summon help and wait for it to arrive and risk her honour? Or does she abandon the man she loves and escape? The story shows how a woman tackles this difficult and very real question. Also, isn’t that such an awesome title? One of my two most favourite titles out of the stories I read.

 

Immensee by Theodor Storm – An achingly beautiful and heartbreaking love story of two childhood sweethearts, one of whom ends up marrying a different person, and what happens when they meet again later in life.

 

The Burning of Egliswyl by Frank Wedekind – It is about a young prisoner who narrates his tale on how the burning love in his heart made him commit arson which took him to prison.

 

Kong at the Seaside by Arnold Zweig – Very short story about how one has to make difficult decisions when one is poor. Simple story with a powerful theme, involving a boy and a dog called Kong.

 

Moonbeam Alley by Stefan Zweig – It describes the adventures of a gentleman in a port city in the disreputable alleys near the harbour. It is a story about how people try to own those they love and how they inflict pain on those they are trying to own and how when they lose the person they love, they pine for what they have lost and try to get it back.

 

What I think

 

So, what do I think about these stories? Which ones are my favourites? I will try to answer the second question first.

 

I think the prize for my most favourite story would go to either ‘Immensee’ by Theodor Storm or ‘Darkness at Noon’ by Arthur Koestler. ‘Immensee’ is an achingly beautiful heartbreaking love story. It reminded me of Ivan Turgenev’s stories – like ‘First Love’ and ‘Spring Torrents’ – which always make me cry. ‘Immensee’ evokes beautiful images of childhood love and how it evolves across the years and takes many strange turns. Storm is a wonderful new discovery for me. His picture in Wikipedia looks forbidden, but going by his story, he seems to have had a passionate heart. I want to read more of his works. Caroline recommended his novella ‘The Rider on the White Horse’ and I want to read that next. ‘Darkness at Noon’ is a novel and what I read is an excerpt and so I don’t know whether it counts. Also Arthur Koestler seems to be Hungarian or British depending on the way we look at things, but he wrote in German during his initial days. I loved the fact that it was difficult to pigeon-hole him in one country – it just showed that nationality is not the rigid thing that it seems to be these days. So, I was not sure whether his story would count as a German story, but for practical purposes I am counting it so. Though I read only an excerpt of the last part of the book, it had some beautiful passages. Like this one :

 

Since the bell of silence had sunk over him, he was puzzling over certain questions to which he would have liked to find an answer before it was too late. They were rather naïve questions; they concerned the meaning of suffering, or, more exactly, the difference between suffering which made sense and senseless suffering. Obviously only such suffering made sense as was inevitable; that is, as was rooted in biological fatality. On the other hand, all suffering with a social origin was accidental, hence pointless and senseless. The sole object of revolution was the abolition of senseless suffering. But it had turned out that the removal of this second kind of suffering was only possible at the price of a temporary enormous increase in the sum total of the first. So the question now ran : Was such an operation justified? Obviously it was, if one spoke in the abstract of “mankind”; but, applied to “man” in the singular, to the cipher 2-4, the real human being of bone and flesh and blood and skin, the principle led to absurdity.

 

And this one :

 

Sometimes he would respond unexpectedly to a tune, or even the memory of a tune, or of the folded hands of the Pietà, or of certain scenes of his childhood. As if a tuning-fork had been struck, there would be answering vibrations, and once this had started a state would be produced which the mystics called “ecstasy” and saints “contemplation”; the greatest and soberest of modern psychologists had recognized this state as a fact and called it the “oceanic sense.” And, indeed, one’s personality dissolved as a grain of salt in the sea; but at the same time the infinite sea seemed to be contained in the grain of salt. The grain could no longer be localized in time and space. It was a state in which thought lost its direction and started to circle, like the compass needle at the magnetic pole; until finally it cut loose from its axis and traveled freely in space, like a bunch of light in the night; and until it seemed that all thoughts and all sensations, even pain and joy itself, were only the spectrum lines of the same ray of light, disintegrating in the prism of consciousness.

 

I would make these two stories my joint “most favourite”.

 

Which are my other favourites? I liked ‘How Old Timofei Died Singing’ by Rainer Maria Rilke, especially for its first page. My favourite passage on the first page, which I found absolutely magical, went like this :

 

      “Where did you get the story you told me last time?” he finally asked. “Out of a book?”

      “Yes,” I answered sadly, “the historians have kept it buried there, since it died; that is not so very long ago. Only a hundred years since, it lived – carelessly, for sure – on many lips. But the words that people use now, those heavy words one cannot sing, were its enemies and took from it one mouth after another, so that in the end it lived, most secluded and in poverty, on one pair of dry lips, as on a miserable widow’s portion. And there it died, leaving no heirs, and was, as I have already said, buried with all honors in a book where others of its family already lay.”

 

I also liked ‘Gods in Exile’ by Heinrich Heine, for showing a different perspective on what Greek gods might be doing today and ‘The Earthquake in Chile’ by Heinrich von Kleist, for its depiction on how big events which bring misery to everyone can bring happiness to a family. I liked ‘The Dead are Silent’ by Arthur Schnitzler – isn’t that such an amazing title –  because it was very poignant and it asked some difficult questions on life and ‘Kong on the Seaside’ by Arnold Zweig for asking a different set of difficult questions in a few pages. ‘Moonbeam Alley’ by Stefan Zweig was wonderful because of its depiction of the cruelties in everyday life. All of these will be a close second favourite for me.

 

I somehow never got along with Thomas Mann. His ‘Death in Venice’ was quite difficult to read as I found it quite ponderous most of the time and I had to plod along for a long while with a lot of determination to finish the story. At around eighty-odd pages, it was the longest of all the stories I read, and it was also quite difficult to read. Interestingly for a story which I found tough to read, there were a lot of beautiful passages strewn throughout the story like beautiful pearls. Like this :

 

The horizon was unbroken. The sea, empty, like an enormous disk, lay stretched under the curve of the sky. But in empty inarticulate space our senses lose also the dimensions of time, and we slip into the incommensurate.

 

And this :

 

The experiences of a man who lives alone and in silence are both vaguer and more penetrating than those of people in society; his thoughts are heavier, more odd, and touched always with melancholy. Images and observations which could easily be disposed of by a glance, a smile, an exchange of opinion, will occupy him unbearably, sink deep into the silence, become full of meaning, become life, adventure, emotion. Loneliness ripens the eccentric, the daringly and estrangingly beautiful, the poetic. But loneliness also ripens the perverse, the disproportionate, the absurd, and the illicit.

 

The story probably caused some controversy when it was published because of its homoerotic content. When I started reading Thomas Mann’s ‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’, I started thinking ‘Oh no, not again’, because in the story of around 24 pages, nothing much had happened till around 20 pages – in some ways it was similar to ‘Death in Venice’. But then things changed in the last four pages where Mann depicted the first stirrings of love and the first pangs of love-pain in the heart of a young girl, beautifully and skillfully. Those four pages warmed my heart towards him. I don’t think I love Mann yet, but I wouldn’t mind exploring some of his shorter work.

 

On Kafka – I think he is not for me. I read a graphic novel version of ‘The Metamorphosis’ a few years back and I liked it. I found it dark and strange and powerful. But the two short stories I read here were too strange – especially ‘A Country Doctor’ which I couldn’t understand or interpret and it was too fantastic without any clear demarcation between the events which were happening in the story and the leading character’s imaginary fantasies. ‘The Married Couple’ was a little bit better, because it was more realistic and was a short story in the classic sense. Maybe certain kinds of Kafka stories will appeal to me, but I don’t think he will become one of my favourite writers.

 

I want to explore more works of Theodor Storm, Rainer Maria Rilke, Heinrich von Kleist, Stefan Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler and Arthur Koestler.

 

Have you read any of the above stories or books by any of the above writers? What do you think about them?

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