Archive for November, 2013

Most of us who read a new translation of an old classic, sometimes ask ourselves, which is the best translation available of this book. We discuss with our reading friends and fellow bloggers about the merits of different translators and translations. Frequently, a new translation of a classic makes a big splash and many times becomes the definitive translated version of the original. I remember when the new translations of the Russian classics by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky came out, they were received enthusiastically. Most readers felt that theirs was the best translation of ‘War and Peace’ or ‘Anna Karenina’ yet. I also remember when Lydia Davis’ translations of ‘Madame Bovary’ and ‘Swann’s Way’ (the first volume of ‘In Search of Lost Time’) came out. They were received with a lot of affection and enthusiasm and readers, reviewers and critics lost no time in saying that these were the best translations of those books ever. It makes us think on how one compare the merits of different translations and decide which one is the best.


One simple way of doing that is hailing that the latest translation is always the best. Because new things are always more appealing than old ones. A child always likes a new toy more. So a Richard Pevear / Larissa Volokhonsky translation will always score over a Constance Garnett translation. A Lydia Davis translation will always score over a Scott Moncrieff / Terence Kilmartin translation. A new translation of Franz Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’ by Susan Bernofsky is coming out next year. It is already being hailed as the best. Of course, this way of judging a translation is not satisfying. The latest is the best is not a good or a logically strong argument.


Another way of comparing translations is to take a particular sentence from a book, read it in the original language (if we know the language) and compare translated versions of that sentence. And pick the one that we like the best. When we do this, sometimes we discover that the most literal translations are not the best ones or the most artistic ones. There is a Wikipedia page which does this with respect to Homer’s epics, ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’. Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life did that wonderfully with a couple of German classics – Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice and Jeremias Gotthelf’s ‘The Black Spider’.


Sometimes we might read a book and unexpectedly discover the author or one of the characters talk about a translator affectionately. It happened to me a couple of times – when Michael Harvey talked about Richmond Lattimore’s translations of the Greek epics in his thriller ‘The Chicago Way (I hadn’t heard of Lattimore before I read this book. I want to check out his translated version one day. The translation of Greek epics currently favoured by readers seems to be the one by Robert Fagles) and Dan Brown talked about Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ in his novel ‘Inferno’ (I have a soft corner for Mandelbaum as I have read parts of his translation of ‘The Odyssey’ and liked it very much).


Out of these my own preferred way of comparing and analyzing different translated versions is the second one – comparing translated sentences together and alongwith the original. But most of the time, it is impossible or hard to do that, because we don’t know the original language and can’t judge how accurate or faithful a translation is.


I wanted to look at translations from a different perspective. Or more precisely, look at the translator more closely than at the translation. And as this is German Literature Month, I want to do that to the German books I have read in the past few years. My basic assumption is this. I don’t know German (Okay, I know ‘Guten Morgan’ and ‘Danke Schone’ and ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ but that doesn’t count.) So, it will be very difficult for me to compare two different translations of the same German book. Also, with respect to contemporary fiction, normally there is only one translation available. No one has done a second translation of Marlen Haushofer’s ‘The Wall’ or Bernhard Schlink’s ‘The Reader’ or Peter Stamm’s ‘Unformed Landscape’ or Elke Schmitter’s ‘Mrs.Sartoris’. Chances of a new translation of any of these books coming out is extremely remote. Maybe it might happen fifty years from now, but it is definitely not going to happen now.  So this model of comparing different translations, though good in theory, is difficult to apply in practice to contemporary German fiction. So I decided to look at it from a totally different angle. During my love affair with German Literature these past few years, I discovered that there were some books that I adored, there were others towards which I was lukewarm and there were others which I was indifferent to. And I discovered that I tended to like books translated by some translators consistently while it wasn’t the case with other translators. I thought to myself – is it possible for me to look at translators that way? Is there a connection I feel with some translators, with respect to literary taste, than with others? Can I say that because my reading taste consistently matches with what one particular translator is translating, I can blindly pick any book that this translator has worked on? Looking at it from this perspective, can I say that I have a favourite translator?


I was quite excited when I thought about it this way. I thought it was time to investigate.


To start with, I made a list of German books I read. I didn’t include the classics (like Thomas Mann’s ‘Death of Venice). I included only contemporary works. And I didn’t define what constituted a contemporary work before proceeding. I decided very arbitrarily and subjectively whether a book was a contemporary work or not. Then I grouped them under translator’s names and tried to see whether a pattern emerged. This was how the list looked like (it is not in any particular order).


Carol Brown Janeway


Mrs.Sartoris by Elke Schmitter


Crime by Ferdinand von Schirach


The Reader by Bernhard Schlink


Michael Hofmann


Unformed Landscape by Peter Stamm


Seven Years by Peter Stamm


The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller


Shaun Whiteside


The Wall by Marlen Haushofer


The Weekend by Bernhard Schlink


Sorry by Zoran Drvenkar


Anthea Bell


Rain by Karen Duve


The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach


Three Bags full by Leonie Swann


John E. Woods


Perfume by Patrick Süskind


The Pigeon by Patrick Süskind


Amanda Prantera


The Loft by Marlen Haushofer


Michael Bullock


The Thirtieth Year by Ingeborg Bachmann


Barbara Harshav


Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier


Michael Henry Heim


Homecoming by Bernhard Schlink


Chantal Wright


Tell Me What You See by Zoran Drvenkar


Looking at the list, we can immediately see that the first four are all big names and they all seem to be translating a lot of work now. We keep stumbling upon them again and again as their range is wide. We stumble upon the others when we are looking for the books of a particular author. When I look at the top four, this is what I think.


Carol Brown Janeway – She translates from a wide range of works. (What’s with Janeway and authors whose second name starts with ‘Sch’? J) In the above list one is literary fiction, another is real-world crime and the third one straddles the fine line between literary and popular fiction. One thought which straightaway jumps at me is that I loved all of her translations that I had read. Every one of them. And unfailingly, all of them had big and beautiful fonts and thick paper. That is always an added bonus.


Michael Hofmann – Looking at the authors Hofmann has translated, it looks like he translates mostly highbrow award winning fiction. No crime novels or popular novels for him. I liked very much all his translations that I read but not in the same way as those of Carol Brown Janeway. Janeway’s translations had that extra little something.


Shaun Whiteside – For me, Whiteside is the dark horse and is the most difficult to classify. I adored one of his translations (Haushofer’s ‘The Wall’), didn’t like another of them (Schlink’s ‘The Weekend’) and liked another of them in parts (Drvenkar’s ‘Sorry’). He has hit on all parts of the spectrum and his translations seem to be a microcosm of the world itself – there seem to be room for all kinds of books there. But he has translated ‘The Wall’ and that is one thing that towers over every other book here. I think I can say that it is the best German book I have ever read. And Whiteside translated it. That is something. And looking at the fact that he has also translated Pascal Mercier’s ‘Perlmann’s Silence’ (which I haven’t read yet, but I love Mercier), I think there are going to be more Whiteside translations that I am going to adore.


Anthea Bell – She is tricky, like Whiteside, but in a different way. Looking at her translations, one feels that she is adventurous with respect to the books she translates. ‘Rain’ is an unconventionally bleak novel – though it has many fans I didn’t like it much. I liked ‘The Collini Case’ though. And I was totally charmed by ‘Three Bags Full’ which is a murder mystery in which sheep are detectives. She is a translator who surprises us with her unusual, adventurous choices.


Out of the rest, John E. Woods is interesting because he has translated two of Patrick Süskind’s works. I loved both of those books. He looked like a one author translator to me till I discovered that he has also translated Bernhard Schlink’s ‘Flights of Love’. I am keeping away from Bernhard Schlink for a while (after the disaster of ‘The Weekend’) but I hope to get to this book one day. If I like it, that will be one more feather on John E. Woods’ cap. Amanda Prantera, like John E. Woods, seems to be a one-author-translator. She has translated two of Marlen Haushofer’s works. I have read one of them – ‘The Loft’ – and it is excellent. It has to be, because it is a Haushofer novel. It will be interesting to find out which authors Prantera chooses to translate in the future.


The other translators are all one-book-wonders (by ‘one-book-wonder’ here, I mean that I have read one translation of theirs. Not that they have translated only one German book. It has more to do with me than with them. I apologize if you thought I was using this phrase in the popular way it is used) and though I liked all those books very much, I can’t arrive at any inference from that.


So, in conclusion, I can say this. I will read any translation of Carol Brown Janeway. I loved all her translations, though they were of different literary genres. If I want to read highbrow literary fiction, Michael Hofmann is the person I will look to. I will keep an eye on Shaun Whiteside, purely for the fact that he translated ‘The Wall’. If he can get hold of another book which is close enough, it will be a great day. Anthea Bell is an adventurous risk-taker. It is always wonderful to find out what she is up to. Anyone who translates ‘Three Bags Full’ must be a charming, fun person. I will also keep an eye on John E. Woods and Amanda Prantera. If I can add one more name – I am reading Jamie Bulloch’s wonderful translation of Katherina Hagena’s ‘The Taste of Apple Seeds’ now. When I finish it, I am sure Bulloch will be a wonderful addition to my list of favourite translators.


Do you like some translators more than others? Especially for quirky, subjective reasons like mine? Who are your favourite translators translating German fiction into English?


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I discovered Elke Schmitter’s ‘Mrs.Sartoris’ through Caroline’s (from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) post on contemporary German women authors. When I read Caroline’s review of it, I decided that I had to read the book for German Literature Month.

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‘Mrs.Sartoris’ is narrated by Margarethe, a forty-year old woman, who is the Mrs.Sartoris of the title. She is married to Ernst and has a teenage daughter, Daniela. The whole book has two story strands. In the first of them, which starts the book, Margarethe talks about how one evening it was raining and she was driving and she saw a man in front of her trying to cross the road and deliberately hit him and killed him on the spot. The police are investigating the case, but because there are no eye witnesses, they are not able to make much progress. We don’t know the identity of the dead man, but from Margarethe’s description, it looks like there is a past story and our heroine had a strong reason for doing what she did. In the second strand, our heroine describes how whenever she goes out to meet her friends and comes back her husband checks her breath discreetly because he is worried about her drinking. To explain why, our heroine talks about her past, starting from her first love and how she fell in love with a young man who turned out to be from a rich family and how he broke her heart. She also describes how she met Ernst later and got married to him. There is a beautiful portrait of Irmi, her mother-in-law, who was one of my favourite characters in the book. She also talks about the troubled relationship she always had with her daughter Daniela, since Daniela’s birth, because Daniela always seems to look beyond the façade and see the real face of her mother. Margarethe talks about how, though she tolerated her life with Ernst, she didn’t really love him (though she loved Irmi) because of her memory of her first love and wondering what might have been. Then one day she meets a man at a music concert she performs in and there is an immediate spark which leads to an affair. Michael, her lover, gives her things that Ernst cannot and after a while, our heroine starts making long-term plans with him. Michael is very circumspect about it, though. Then one day, Margarethe tells Michael that they should leave their families, move to Venice and start life anew. Michael, after dithering a bit, agrees to it. Do Margarethe and Michael manage to get away from their families and start a new life? What about those who are left behind – the loyal Ernst, the loving Irmi and the troubled Daniela? What about Michael’s family? What about the second strand of the story in which our heroine kills someone deliberately? The answer to these questions and how the two strands get woven together in the end form the rest of the story.

Mrs Sartoris By Elke Schmitter

I loved ‘Mrs.Sartoris’. Elke Schmitter’s prose is smooth and elegant, like a Rolls Royce or a Merc, and there is no superfluous word. Not even one. The first half of the story is slow-paced with beautiful sentences and is a pleasure to read. In the second part, the pace picks up and it becomes a page-turning thriller. And it is still a pleasure to read. The book is just 143 pages long and Schmitter has managed to pack in so many things in those few pages. I liked the main character, the narrator Margarethe, though her moral compass doesn’t exactly point north. When she starts her affair with Michael I found myself asking her : “Margarethe sweetheart, why are you doing this? You have a wonderful, solid, loyal husband and a loving, warm and affectionate mother-in-law. Most people would kill for a mother-in-law like that. Why are you throwing all this away?” It looks like Margarethe hears my question and lament, because she gives her reply in page 99. It is passionate and convincing, but it doesn’t change my mind. I must be getting old, I think. My favourite character was Irmi, Ernst’s mother and Margarethe’s mother-in-law. When I read the description of the scene in which she makes her first appearance :


When we got engaged, Irmi had just turned fifty, and she dazzled me. She was a war widow, her only son had had one lower leg blown away in battle, her income could even be described as wretched – but she always looked as if she’d won the lottery and was just waiting for people she could share it with. The first time she saw me, she immediately embraced me and led us into the parlor for coffee s if I were the daughter of a queen. Ernst told me you are beautiful, she said as she cut into the cake, but he didn’t tell me just how beautiful you are!


I totally fell in love with her. I wish she had a bigger part to play in the story.


Ernst, Philip (Margarethe’s first love), Michael, Renate (Margarethe’s friend), Daniela all have their parts to play. Daniela’s part increases in importance towards the end of the story.


I loved ‘Mrs.Sartoris’. I loved Schmitter’s elegant prose, I loved the even pace of the story, I loved the heroine and her thoughts and questions about life and I loved Irmi.  This book is a perfect little gem. It is one of my favourite reads of the year. I can’t wait to read Elke Schmitter’s next book. I checked in Amazon and discovered one more book by her – ‘Leichte Verfehlungen’ (Minor Misdemeanours) – and one slated for release next year – ‘Veras Tochter’ (Vera’s Daughter). I hope both of them get translated into English.

Elke Schmitter

Elke Schmitter

I will leave you with some of my favourite lines from the book.


Daniela was made of feathers, light as a butterfly, with red-gold down for hair, eyes that were almost transparent, more of a delicate moth than a baby.


I have always had trouble – and it’s never gotten any better – taking in a face and a name at one and the same time. I always settle for the face…


I had always thought that poetry was not worth much because it was hopelessly exaggerated; now my reservations were reversed : I thought, if that’s all the poets have to say, it’s totally inadequate, a tepid half-representation of reality.


We didn’t need things to keep us busy and I no longer had any idea how we spent our time; I remember our happiness, but I don’t remember the shape it took.


Ernst wanted a girl, which surprised me a little; I thought all men wanted a son. I’m lucky with women, he said, looking happily at both me and Irmi, and his wish was granted.


His life’s goal was to be comfortable, he was as transparent in that regard as a glass of water, and he only thought about people in any serious way if they troubled his comfort.


The animals calmed me down, in particular the huge eyes of the cows, which observed me neutrally. I wished passionately that I was seventeen again; if I were as old as Daniela, I thought, or just a little older, this scene would have an innocent charm, because everyone believes a young girl is entranced by ruminant beasts; it’s somewhat laughable in a grown woman – you don’t stand there by a trampled field in a silk dress making yourself loved with lumps of sugar.


The clock in here was never accurate, but Irmi felt that wasn’t the point, a kitchen clock was only there to make you feel comfortable and at home, and she was probably right.


In the moment when I fetched a glass of tap water and sat down beside him, as if for a great debate, and looked at him in silence, in that moment I lost the chance to make a nothing out of all this something, and make the catastrophe simply go away.


You can find other reviews of the book here.


Caroline’s (From Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) review

Stu’s (from Winstondad’s Blog) review


Have you read Elke Schmitter’s ‘Mrs.Sartoris’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Rain’ by Karen Duve through Caroline’s (from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) post on contemporary German women authors. I haven’t heard of Karen Duve before and the plot of the story looked quite interesting with an atmospheric feel and so I thought I will read it for German Literature Month.

Rain By Karen Duve

The plot summary of the novel given in the back cover reads like this.


When Leon Ulbricht lands a contract to write a gangster’s memoirs and moves into his dream home in an East German village with his beautiful wife Martina, everything seems set for an idyllic existence. But the dream home turns out to be in the middle of a fetid swamp; his house and marriage are falling apart; he can’t write the book and has spent all of his advance. It rains without end and their attempts to repair the house, or at least dry it out, are hampered by the plague of slugs eating away at the foundations. And then the gangster, wondering why his memoirs are not yet completed, decides to get nasty.


How can one resist a story like that? I couldn’t.


Now that I have finished reading I have good news and bad news. The good news first. The book is very true to the title. It is a bookish personification of rain. The whole book evokes the atmosphere of rain – the drizzle, the downpour, the steady incessant irritating rain, the slugs which come with the rain, the grey sky, the rainy nights setting in early, water getting soaked into the house roofs, walls and the foundation, water dripping through the roof into the house, clothes refusing to dry, boots and shoes soaked with rain, everything outside being marshy and mushy, brown water coming out of the tap, the rain because of which the power gets cut, the telephone cable gets cut, the mobile battery runs out, when it is dark and one can’t do anything but only hope that daylight arrives soon so that atleast one can see around. It is not the beautiful romantic rain – where two people stand under one umbrella on a bridge near the Fontanka river in St.Petersburg with love in their eyes. This is the rain which is messy, which makes your life difficult, which brings slugs, insects and worms inside your home, which you didn’t even know existed, the rain which prevents you from going out and which prevents you from enjoying your staying in, a rain which gets into your nerves all the time. This is the rain which the book portrays from the beginning to the end. Full marks to Karen Duve for that. I haven’t read another book which portrays the annoying characteristic of rain as well as this one. The second nice thing about the book is the way it shows how the rain and the atmosphere and environment it creates transforms the people who live there, not just emotionally or psychologically but in probably very real ways. The way how, Leon starts resembling his next door neighbour Isadora at the end of the book is very uncanny. I didn’t like the main character in the story, Leon the writer, but I liked some of the other characters – Martina (Leon’s wife), Kay (one of their neighbours who loves Martina) and Noah (a stray dog whom Martina takes inside her home).


Now the bad news. I was expecting the book to evoke the atmosphere of rain. And that Karen Duve has masterfully done. But I also expected the book to have a plot which was quite engaging and funny and which grabbed my attention and made me laugh. That is what the blurb hinted at. Unfortunately, I felt that the book didn’t do that. It started off quite well but at some point, I felt that the depiction of the atmosphere and the environment won over the story and the humour. There are some nasty characters (which was okay with me) and some nasty, repulsive scenes (which was not okay with me). One particular scene was so repulsive that I was very upset with it and I also wondered why I bothered with the story. Luckily the book redeemed itself a bit after that. But that scene left a bad taste in the mouth.


In conclusion, I don’t know how to react to the book. I definitely didn’t like it. But the evocation of rain and the rainy atmosphere and environment was masterful. I don’t know whether it was just me – because ‘Rain’ was a bestseller in Germany and has been translated into sixteen languages – or whether other reviewers felt the same as me. So I did some research. Interestingly, I couldn’t find a single blogger-review of the book in English. But I found two other reviews – the Guardian review (by Margaret Stead) and the review at the Goethe Institut site (by Barbara Baker). These two reviews had opposite points of view – Stead’s praised the book while Baker’s review was more complex and was overall unfavourable to the book. I sided with Baker.


I will leave you with some of my favourite lines from the book.


After only a minute out in the rain, Martina’s chin-length red hair was plastered to her face. A strand of it described a calligraphic flourish on her forehead, from which water licked its way down to her mouth.


The stream changed from flowing above ground to flowing underground like a needle swiftly stitching.


The sound woke Leon and Martina up on their first few nights. Then they integrated it into their dreams, which from now on were full of creaking bridges and falling trees.


The rain increased, falling from the sky like a set of evenly arranged guitar strings.


Have you read ‘Rain’ by Karen Duve? What do you think about it?

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I have heard of Ingeborg Bachmann before, but I have never got around to reading her books. When Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat recommended her books highly, I thought I will read some of Bachmann’s books for German Literature Month

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The first book I read was ‘The Thirtieth Year’. It is a collection of short stories. ‘The Thirtieth Year’ has seven short stories. Some of them are short, but most of them are around 30-40 pages.

The Thirtieth Year By Ingeborg Bachmann

My favourite story was the title story ‘The Thirtieth Year’. It is about a man who turns thirty and looks back at his past life and remembers his old friends and enemies and the beautiful moments and love he had and the quarrels he got into. This man also thinks about the future and contemplates on what he should be doing with his life. That is all what the plot is about. It can be told in two sentences. It is also described as a short story. Well, who is dear Inge trying to fool? This is no ordinary short story. Well, scratch out that adjective ‘ordinary’. That sentence should read ‘This is no short story’. I find it extremely difficult to describe what this beautiful piece of art is. The best I can come up with is that it is concentrated, exquisite poetry with profound philosophical insights which looks deceptively like a short story. I don’t know how Ingeborg Bachmann managed to pull that of, but she has. The first paragraph of the story grabs your attention – cunning Inge doesn’t miss that first paragraph trick  :


When a person enters his thirtieth year people will not stop calling him young. But he himself, although he can discover no changes in himself, becomes unsure; he feels as though he were no longer entitled to claim to be young. And one morning he wakes up, on a day which he will forget, and suddenly lies there unable to get up, struck by harsh rays of light and denuded of every weapon and all courage with which to face the new day..


and the story doesn’t let you go till the end. I found beautiful, deep insights in every page and my highlighting pen was working nonstop. If you don’t believe me, check out these passages, some of my favourite ones.


He will free himself from the people who surround him and if possible he will not go to new ones. He can no longer live among people. They paralyse him, they have explained him according to their own judgment. As soon as a man stays some time in one place he is transmuted into too many shapes, hearsay shapes, and has less and less right to appeal to his own self. Therefore he wishes, henceforth and for ever, to appear in his true shape. He cannot start this here, where he has been living for a long time; but he will do it there, where he will be free.


Why have I spent a whole summer trying to destroy myself in intoxication or to intensify my feelings in intoxication? – Only to avoid becoming aware that I am an abandoned instrument upon which someone, a long time ago, struck a few notes on which I helplessly produce variations, out of which I try furiously to make a piece of sound that bears my handwriting. My handwriting! As if it were important for something to bear my handwriting! Flashes of lightning have passed through trees and split them. Madness has come upon men and inwardly broken them in pieces. Swarms of locusts have descended upon the fields and left the trail of their devouring. Floods have devastated hills and torrents the mountainsides. Earthquakes have not ceased. These are handwritings, the only ones.


He has spent so many useless hours with other people, and although he made no use of the hours now either, he did bend them towards him and sniff at them. He came to enjoy time; its taste was pure and good.


Today he was another man. He felt good only when he was alone, he no longer made demands, demolished the edifice of his wishes, gave up his hopes and became simpler day by day. He began to think humbly of the world. He sought a duty, he wanted to serve. To plant a tree. To procreate a child. Is that modest enough? Is that simple enough?


Love was unbearable. It expected nothing, demanded nothing and gave nothing. It did not allow itself to be fenced in, cultivated and planted with feelings, but stepped over all boundaries and smashed down all feelings.


Men do not love freedom. Wherever it has come into being they have quarrelled with it. I love freedom which I too must betray a thousand times over. This unworthy world is the result of the uninterrupted spurning of freedom.


Did you like them?


My second favourite story or stories rather – there are two actually and I liked both of them equally well – were ‘A Step Towards Gomorrah and ‘A Wildermuth’.


Looking at the title, you would have guessed what ‘A Step Towards Gomorrah was about. It is about a happily married musician Charlotte, who during the course of an evening, finds herself attracted towards another woman, an attraction which throws light on her present life. Though she is happily married, this new found attraction promises something which will satisfy a deep yearning in her heart and change her life in a profoundly beautiful way. Well, but that is the beauty of a magical evening – there is so much of promise, but when we get up the next morning we have to get back to our mundane life. And Charlotte has to pick up her husband at the railway station the next day morning. Does she or doesn’t she? Does she accept her present mundane life and chug along or does she allow the evening’s promise to flower? You have to read the story to find out. My favourite lines from the story were these :


The arrogance to insist on her own unhappiness, her own loneliness, had always been in her, but only now did it venture to emerge; it blossomed, ran wild, smothered her. She was unredeemable and nobody should have the effrontery to redeem her…


‘A Wildermuth’ is about a judge who tries to find the truth about everything, starting with the cases which come up before him in court. The first part of the story talks about a case which is being argued in his court. Towards the end of the hearing, the judge gets up and starts shouting ‘Stop telling the truth’ or something similar. The second part of the story is told in the first person from the judge’s perspective and it describes how his fascination for the truth started and how it all ended up with his saying ‘Stop telling the truth’. The first part of the story reads like a legal thriller and we hope that there will be twists and turns and we also hope that the person who is charged for murder is really innocent or he has really good reasons for committing the murder. Things don’t turn out that way though. The second part of the story is a philosophical meditation on the nature of truth and whether it can be really ascertained. The judge’s point of view, at the end of the story, is presented in these passages :


Yes, what then is the truth about myself, about anyone? The truth can be defined only in respect of point-like, minute moments of action, steps in the process of feeling, the most minute steps, about one drop after another out of the thought stream. But then it would no longer be possible to deduce that a person had such massive characteristics as ‘thrifty’, ‘good-natured’, ‘cowardly’, ‘thoughtless’. All the thousand thousandths of a second of liking, desire, aversion, calm, agitation that one passes through – what can be deduced from them? One thing only : that a man has done much and suffered much…


…why…must we tell the truth, my friends? Why should we in fact choose this damned truth? So that we should not slip into lies, for lies are human handiwork and the truth is only half human handiwork, for there must be something on the other side – where the facts are – to correspond to it. There must first be something on the other side for a truth to exist. It cannot exist alone.


      I’m after the truth. But the further after it I go the further away it is, flickering like a will-o’-the-wisp at all times, at all places, over very object. As though it were only tangible, as though it only had solidity, if one doesn’t move, doesn’t ask many questions, rests content with the crudest facts. It must be set for medium temperatures, medium looks, medium words. Then the result is a continual cheap agreement between object and word, feeling and word, deed and word. The well brought up word that is forced to accept this mute world of buttons and hearts with compassion. Indolent, apathetic word set on agreement at all costs.

      And beyond this there are nothing but opinions, slick assertions, opinions about opinions and an opinion about the truth that is worse than the opinions about all truths…


I also liked the story ‘Everything’ which is about a man who wants his son to be different in a fundamental way when compared to other children but when his son turns out like everyone else he stops loving his son. (My summary is inadequate though – this is not exactly what happens, as what happens in the story is more complex than that. That is also one of the themes of this story – the inadequacy of language.) As the narrator describes it :


It was all the same to me whether Fipps went to the grammar school later or not, whether he developed into something worthwhile or not. A worker wants to see his son a doctor, a doctor wants to see his son at least a doctor. I don’t understand that. I didn’t want Fipps to become either cleverer or better than us. Nor did I want to be loved by him; there was no need for him to obey me, no need for him to bend to my will. No, I wanted…I only wanted him to begin from the beginning, to show me with a single gesture that he didn’t have to reflect our gestures. I didn’t see anything new in him. I was newborn, but he wasn’t! It was I, yes, I was the first man and had gambled everything away, and done nothing!


The other stories in the book were interesting too. ‘Undine Goes’ is about a mermaid / water nymph who reveals her own perspective on human beings – on how humans do terrible things but are also endlessly fascinating and how it is very difficult to resist loving them. ‘Among Murderers and Madmen’ is about a few people who were on opposite sides during the war (the Second World War) – some were part of the persecuting side and the others were part of the persecuted side – now sit on the same table as friends and have dinner and the consequences of that. In ‘Youth in an AustrianTown, the narrator looks back at his childhood in an Austrian town, when dramatic things were afoot and things changed irrevocably. This story had one of my favourite first sentences – it was actually the second sentence, but I am taking poetic licence here  :


“The first tree…is so ablaze with autumn, such an immense patch of gold, that it looks like a torch dropped by an angel.”


When I read that sentence, I knew that I was going to love the rest of the book. I was not wrong.


One of the recurring themes across the stories is the inadequacy of language, on how language is imperfect and approximate and how it obscures more than it reveals while trying to describe people, places, events, things, feelings, the atmosphere of a time and place and how we try to be more and more precise and use new words in different layers to describe old ones so that the core meaning at the centre could be revealed. And how we often end up making things more obscure than when we started. It made me think about what Philip Larkin once said about a good poem (as described in the book “It must be Beautiful”) :


A good poem is like an onion. On the outside, both are pleasingly smooth and intriguing, and they become more and more so, as their successive layers of meaning are revealed. His aim was to write the perfect onion.


I can’t resist comparing Ingeborg Bachmann with one of my favourite writers Marlen Haushofer, because both of them are Austrian and both of them had parallel careers.


Ingeborg Bachmann

…and Marlen

Marlen Haushofer

The main difference between them, which jumps at me, is this. While reading a Marlen Haushofer novel one gets a feeling that one is talking to one’s mother or one’s favourite aunt and hearing family stories of the past. There is a lot of warmth and love in that conversation. While reading an Ingeborg Bachmann book, the experience is different. It is like having an intellectual conversation with a philosopher who shares her profound insights on the human condition. It is probably because of their backgrounds – Haushofer studied literature and was a homemaker and a writer while Bachmann studied philosophy and was an academic and a writer. Both so different and both such a pleasure to read.


Though Ingeborg Bachmann was a renowned writer in her time, she wrote only a few books. I could find only seven of them in English translation – two collections of short stories, one novel, one collection of two novel fragments, one collection of poetry (published as two different collections, originally), a collection of letters that she and Paul Celan wrote to each other and a war diary. I want to read all of them some day.


The edition of ‘The Thirtieth Year’ I read has a wonderful introduction by Karen Achberger which gives an overview of Ingeborg Bachmann’s life and her work and also discusses all the stories in the book and the themes they explore.


I think you know this already, but I have to say it nevertheless. I loved Ingeborg Bachmann’s ‘The Thirtieth Year’. It is a wonderful piece of poetry in prose which conveys lyrical impressions of people and places and reveals philosophical insights into the human condition. I can’t wait to read my next Bachmann book.


It has been a slow start for me during this year’s German Literature Month. I hope to catch up in the next few weeks.


Have you read ‘The Thirtieth Year’ or any other book by Ingeborg Bachmann?

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One of my favourite YA writers, Tabitha Suzuma, is hosting a Spine Poetry Competition on Facebook. I thought it will be fun to participate. To participate we have to compose a poem using book spines of the books we have and post a picture of the books together. I totally enjoyed composing my ‘poem’. As it is German Literature Month, I thought initially that I will compose the poem using only German books, but after a while the story-poem took a life of its own and I had to get a little help from friends 🙂 Here is my story-poem.

A Little History of the World : A Love Story

Spine Poetry

A Little History of the World

Promise at Dawn

Three Paths to the Lake

Nowhere Ending Sky

The Taste of Apple Seeds

The Grass is Singing

The Woman Before Me

The Piano Teacher


The Awakening

First Love

Everything Beautiful Began After

Time Was Soft There

The Food of Love

The Language of Flowers

Dance Dance Dance


A Note of Madness

The Fault in Our Stars

Lost Illusions

Little Man, What Now?

Perlmann’s Silence


If you decide to participate, I would love to read / see your poem 🙂

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It is November and it is the start of my favourite reading event of the year – the German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. The event runs through the whole of November and I am really excited. I have been making reading lists through the whole year in preparation for my favourite reading event and have been collecting books on and off. Now it is time finally to get all the books together, make a reading plan and get started.

German Literature Month 2013 Button

For more information on German Literature Month, do check out the introductory post where you can signup for the event and the review page where you can check out the reviews of other participants.


Now, more about my reading list. As I did last year, I put together all the German books that I would like to read and then arranged them in ascending order with respect to the number of pages. Then I separated them into two piles – the ‘To Be Read’ list and the ‘Wishlist’. The thinner ones made it into the ‘To be read’ list while the thicker ones made it into the ‘Wishlist. I know this way of categorizing and organizing is not the best way and is totally arbitrary and we can even argue that it is inappropriate because it favours a thin book over a thick one and all these conclusions are true. But my own defence to that is that all the books I want to read are wonderful and I want to read the maximum number of books within the space of a month and so I am going to follow this plan. If I can read one of the thicker books this month, I will be happy. So, these are my lists.


To Be Read List


The Ladies


Caroline recommended Ingeborg Bachmann highly and as I haven’t read any of her books yet, I went and got a whole collection of her works.


(1)   The Thirtieth Year by Ingeborg Bachmann

The Thirtieth Year By Ingeborg Bachmann

(2)   Three Paths to the Lake by Ingeborg Bachmann

Three Paths To The Lake By Ingeborg Bachmann

(3)   War Diary by Ingeborg Bachmann

War Diary By Ingeborg Bachmann

(4)   The Taste of Apple Seeds by Katharina Hagena – I discovered this book through Lizzy’s post on potential readalong choices. The plot captivated me and I wanted to read it.

The Taste Of Apple Seeds By Katharina Hagena

(5)   The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek – I haven’t read a Jelinek book yet, though I have seen the movie version of this book. So I thought it is time to read my first Jelinek.


(6)   Nowhere Ending Sky by Marlen Haushofer – I fell in love with Marlen Haushofer after reading ‘The Wall’ earlier this year. My love for her became stronger and deeper after I read ‘The Loft’. I have been saving up ‘Nowhere Ending Sky’ for German Literature Month and now I can’t wait to read this book by one of my favourite writers. This is the third and last Haushofer book available in English. I hope the publishers decide to translate more. If they don’t, it is time for me to learn German.


(7)   Rain by Karen Duve – I discovered this through Caroline’s post on new German women authors. I loved the plot and now can’t wait to read it.

Rain By Karen Duve

(8)   The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke – I have been reading reviews of this slim gem in many of my favourite blogs, especially reviews by Andrew and Claire. Now I think it is time to read the book myself.

 The Mussel Feast By Birgit Vanderbeke

The Gentlemen


(1)   Elective Affinities by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe – I have read just one Goethe book ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’. I think it is time to read a second one.

Elective Affinities By Johnann Wolfgang Von Goethe

(2)   Little Man, What Now? By Hans Fallada – I won this in a giveaway hosted during the first German Literature Month a couple of years back. I can’t believe that I have waited so long to read it. I read half of this book last year during GLM, but got distracted by something else after that. I can’t wait to read the second half now.

Little Man What Now By Hans Fallada

(3)   A Little History of the World by E.H.Gombrich – I know that this is German Literature Month and this book is a history book, but it was originally written in German when Gombrich was still living in Vienna and I loved it when I read it for the first time a few years back. I want to read it again and I think German Literature Month is the perfect occasion to do that 🙂

 A Little History Of The World By EH Gombrich



(1)   Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann – This is Bachmann’s only fully completed novel and I hope I get to read it this month.

Malina By Ingeborg Bachmann

(2)   Lust by Elfriede Jelinek – Jelinek’s controversial novel which probably made her name and which people either love or hate. I want to know what the fuss is all about.

Lust By Elfriede Jelinek

(3)   The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse – I have wanted to read this for years and I put it on my list everytime German Literature Month arrives. I don’t know whether I will be able to read it this time, but one can always dream.

The Glass Bead Game By Hermann Hesse

(4)   Perlman’s Silence by Pascal Mercier – I loved Pascal Mercier’s ‘Night Train to Lisbon when I read it. It is one of my favourite books. Mercier’s prose is exquisite and beautifully contemplative. I can’t wait to read ‘Perlman’s Silence’ his first ever novel, but which has only recently been translated into English.

Perlmanns Silence By Pascal Mercier

(5)   Suspicion by Friedriech Dürrenmatt – I read this book a couple of years back when I first discovered Dürrenmatt, in a collection called ‘The Inspector Barlach Mysteries’. I loved it. There is a nurse who works in a private clinic under a suspected Nazi doctor who speaks some powerful lines and I want to read those lines again. I hope I can do that this month.

Suspicion By Friedrich Durrenmatt

When I do some simple counting of the above books from different perspectives, this is what I find out – that there are 10 books by women writers and 6 books by men writers. More interestingly, there are 7 books by Austrian writers, 6 books by German writers, 2 books by a Swiss writers and 1 book by an Austrian writer who became a British citizen. If I manage to read all these books, it will look more like an Austrian women literature month for me 🙂 Well, let us see how it goes.


Though it looks a bit ambitious, I hope I can read all the books on my TBR list and atleast one book from my wishlist. I will be delighted if I am able to do that.


Now, I am going to pick up Ingeborg Bachmann’s ‘The Thirtieth Year’ and get started on the first story in it.


Are you participating in German Literature Month? What books are you planning to read? Have you read any of the above books?

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While I was looking for a vampire novel to read for Carl’s RIP event, I discovered that I had John Ajvide Lindqvist’s ‘Let the Right One In’. I had got it a few years back and for some reason had never got around to reading it. I decided that the time had come to redeem that.


‘Let the Right One In’ is a vampire novel. The story is set in 1981 in Sweden. Oskar lives in the suburbs with his mother. His parents are divorced but are on friendly terms. Once in a while he spends the weekend with his father. Oscar is different from his classmates – he keeps to himself most of the time, he likes spending time with puzzles and the Rubik cube and he doesn’t have a lot of friends. He has one or two friends at school, but they are not very close. He has a friend near his home, but this friend is older and is a troubled teenager who takes part in questionable activities. Oskar is picked upon by bullies at school and they frequently make him do unpleasant things. One day Oskar meets a girl in the park next to his building. Her name is Eli. They become friends. They have conversations and Oskar shows her how to play with the Rubik cube. Oskar finds it odd that she doesn’t know about the Rubik cube. He also finds it interesting that she sometimes uses old-fashioned, serious words during their conversation. It turns out that Eli is a vampire. She doesn’t like being one but she is one nevertheless. There is someone else living with her who helps in getting her ‘food’. Meanwhile in the suburbs a serious of gruesome murders take place and the police are investigating them. We, of course, know what is happening. Eli’s partner is killing people and getting food for her. How all these story strands evolve – how Oskar reacts when he finds out that Eli is a vampire and whether their friendship survives that revelation, whether Oskar is able to handle his bullies after befriending Eli, whether the police are able to solve the murder case, what happens to Eli – and are woven together in the end forms the rest of the story.

Let The Right One In By John Ajvide Lindqvist

‘Let the Right One In’ is an unconventional vampire novel when compared to other vampire novels – both classic and recent ones. It is less about a vampire and more about growing up, about friendship and loyalty and love, about mustering courage to face bullies, about how parents with troubled teenage children have to face complex challenges everyday. I liked most of the good characters in the story and disliked the bullies. The relationship between Oskar and his parents, and Tomas (Oscar’s friend) and his mother and his mother’s boyfriend, were portrayed quite well. The love story of Lacke and Virginia was beautiful and heartbreaking. The portrait of 1980s smalltown Sweden was quite detailed and realistic. There was a repulsive scene at the beginning of the book and at that point I asked myself whether I should continue to read the book, because one such scene always leads to another. But I am glad that I persevered.


I loved the character of Eli, though Eli was a vampire. I read a passage in Marlen Haushofer’s ‘The Loft’ sometime back. It went like this :


“Why the idea of natural causes should reassure us, when the things they cause are either evil or painful or senseless or all three, I fail to understand. What is there to be reassured about? A friendly ghost scares us far worse than a horrible live person, and that is absurd. This yearning for natural explanations must spring from our own profound human stupidity.”


That is what I felt when I read Lindqvist’s book. Though Eli is not exactly harmless, she is kind and loyal and nice and intelligent when compared to the human bullies in the book but most of the human characters feel threatened by her while the human bullies go scot-free.


The story started out like a literary vampire novel but after a while the pace picked up and there was more focus on the story rather than on beautiful sentences. The ending was beautiful and perfect. One of the reviews said this about the ending – “the way Lindqvist manages to pull what amounts to a happy ending out of his conjurer’s hat is one of many impressive things about a genuinely remarkable book.” That says it all.


I loved ‘Let The Right One In’ inspite of its flaws. It is a beautiful story of friendship, love and growing up. I would like to read more books by Lindqvist. I would also like to see the movie version. One of my friends said that the English movie version wasn’t that good, while another friend said that the Swedish version was wonderful. I want to watch the Swedish movie version.


I will leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book. They have nothing to do with vampires.


      No respect for beauty – that was characteristic of today’s society. The works of the great masters were at most employed as ironic references, or used in advertising. Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, where you see a pair of jeans in place of the spark. The whole point of the picture, at least as he saw it, was that these two monumental bodies each came to an end in two index fingers that almost, but not quite, touched. There was a space between them a millimetre or so wide. And in this space – life. The sculptural size and richness of detail of this picture was simply a frame, a backdrop, to emphasise the crucial void in its centre. The point of emptiness that contained everything.

      And in its place a person had superimposed a pair of jeans.


      During the four months that they lived together Virginia never managed to figure out what Lacke actually did. He knew something about electrical wiring and put in a dimmer on the lamp in the living room. He knew something about cooking : surprised her several times with well-made fish-based creations. But what did he do?

      He sat in the apartment, went for walks, talked to people, read a lot of books and newspapers. That was all. For Virginia, who had worked since she left school, it was an incomprehensible way to live.

      ‘So Lacke,’ she had asked him, ‘I don’t mean this…but what is it you do? Where do you get your money?’

      ‘I don’t have any.’

      ‘But you do have a little money.’

      ‘This is Sweden. Carry out a chair and put it on the footpath. Sit there in that chair and wait. If you wait long enough someone will come out and give you money. Or take care of you somehow.’

      ‘Is that how you see me?’

      ‘Virginia. When you say “Lacke, please leave,” then I’ll leave.’

      It had taken a month before she said it. Then he had stuffed his clothes into a bag, his books into another. And left.


Well, the RIP event has ended for the year. I read four books for RIP – two collections of ghost stories, one crime novel and one vampire novel. I enjoyed participating in the event and I enjoyed reading all these wonderful books. I can’t wait for RIP next year.


Have you read ‘Let the Right One In’? What do you think about it? Have you seen the movie version – the Swedish version or the English version?

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