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Archive for November, 2014

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I wanted to read a play for German Literature Month, and after a little bit of deliberation, I decided on Arthur Schnitzler’s ‘La Ronde’.

La Ronde By Arthur Schnitzler

So, what is ‘La Ronde’ about? Like any self-respecting Arthur Schnitzler story, it is about adultery and sex. Or as Suzanne Vega describes her album of love songs – it is about attraction, flirtation and confrontation. There are ten scenes in the story and each of them features two characters, who are attracted towards each other, flirt with each other and end up in bed with each other. A character from the first scene takes part in the second scene with another character and this continues till the last scene where a character from the ninth scene spends time with a character from the first scene, thus rounding things off and proving that the world is round and it all comes back to the beginning. Hence the title ‘La Ronde’. The characters in the play are all from different parts of society and so the play, in some ways, highlights the sexual mores of people from different parts of society of that era. The play was first published in 1900, and the content is pretty explicit for its time (one of the characters talks to his partner about why he is not able to get an erection and satisfy her). Schnitzler clearly seems to have tempted fate and flirted with the censors here – no wonder the play was banned for many decades after it was first published.

Looking at it from today’s perspective though, I found that the play, though it must have created lots of controversy during its time and raised a lot of hue and cry from critics, didn’t really move me much. Most of the play had flirty dialogue, which I didn’t really love that much. Maybe because the play doesn’t really work when it is read, but is better when it is performed. It didn’t have the beauty that my favourite short story of Schnitzler had – ‘The Dead are Silent’. I liked parts of one of the conversations though – the conversation between a count and an actress. Here is how it went.

COUNT: Just as I imagined: you’re a misanthropist. It’s bound to happen with artists. Moving in that more exalted sphere. Well, it’s all right for you, at least you know why you’re alive.

ACTRESS:  Who told you that? I haven’t the remotest idea why I’m alive!

COUNT:     Not really, Fräulein . . . famous . . . celebrated

ACTRESS:  Is that-happiness?

COUNT: Happiness? Happiness doesn’t exist. None of the things people chatter about really exist. . . . Love, for instance. It’s the same with love.

ACTRESS:  You may be right there.

COUNT:     Enjoyment . . . intoxication . . . there’s nothing wrong with them, they’re real. I enjoy something, all right, and I know I enjoy it. Or I’m intoxicated, all right. That’s real too. And when it’s over, it’s over, that’s all.

ACTRESS (grandly): It’s over!

COUNT:     But as soon as you don’t-I don’t quite know how to say it-as soon as you stop living for the present moment, as soon as you think of later on or earlier on . . . Well, the whole thing collapses. “Later on” is sad, and “earlier on” is uncertain, in short, you just get mixed up. Don’t you think so?

ACTRESS (nods, her eyes very wide open): You pluck out the heart of the mystery, my dear Count.

COUNT: And you see, Fräulein, once you’re clear about that, it doesn’t matter if you live in Vienna or on the Hungarian plains or in the tiny town of Steinamanger.

I have one of the movie versions of Schnitzler’s play called ‘360’ directed by Fernando Meirelles. I hope to watch it tomorrow. I can then tell whether the play works better when it is performed.

 

Have you read Arthur Schnitzler’s ‘La Ronde’ or seen it performed in the theatre or seen any of the film adaptations? What do you think about it?

Other Reviews 

Amateur Reader (Tom) (from Wuthering Expectations)

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I discovered ‘Indian Summer’ by Adalbert Stifter through Jonathan’s review of it. But ‘Indian Summer’ was hard to get. And Jonathan said that his favourite Stifter novel was ‘Rock Crystal’. As I was able to get a copy of ‘Rock Crystal’, I read it first. Here is what I think.

Rock Crystal By Adalbert Stifter

‘Rock Crystal’ is a short novella. Or a long short story, depending on how you look at it. It describes the adventures of a brother (Conrad) and his sister (Sanna) in the mountains. First some background. There is a village called Gschaid in the valley. It is surrounded by mountains. The highest mountains are snowcapped throughout the year and have a glacier which melts during summer which fills the stream which is the source of water for the village. The people in the valley keep to themselves and rarely venture outside. They marry within themselves, love each other, have their quarrels and live their quiet lives there. There lives a shoemaker there. He falls in love with a girl who lives in the town called Millsdorf on the other side of the mountain. The girl’s father resists the shoemaker’s advances. But the shoemaker woos her persistently, and after a while the girl’s father agrees to their marriage. After they get married, the girl comes to live with the shoemaker. They have a couple of children, a boy called Conrad and girl called Sanna. The children’s grandparents love them very much, especially the grandmother. She frequently comes to visit them, eventhough it means taking the mountain path and coming to the other side. But after a few years, it becomes hard for her to make that long trip. Fortunately, in Gschaid, children are encouraged to travel on their own and soon when Conrad and Sanna become old enough, they travel on their own and visit their grandmother. Once during Christmas Eve, they visit their grandmother. Their grandmother makes delicious treats for them, packs presents in their bags and sends them back early. On the way back, it starts snowing. In the beginning, the snow is light and so the children enjoy the snow. But after a while, the snow becomes heavy, and the children are travelling through their well-worn route more out of habit, as they are not able to see anything more than a few feet away. After a while, the snow lays a white carpet over everything – the forest floor, the path, the trees – and the children discover that they are not able to see any familiar landmarks. Before they know their paths have become steeper and they are climbing higher and higher up the mountain. Then they reach a place which is filled with big rocks and they discover that these are made of ice. It looks like they have reached somewhere near the top of the mountain and everywhere they look there is ice. It is the glacier. They are trapped and they can’t move in any direction.

So, what do they do? Are Conrad and Sanna trapped in the glacier? Are they able to find their way down? I am going to leave you on a cliffhanger here. To find out how the story ends, you should read the rest of the book.

‘Rock Crystal’ started off quite slowly. There was a lot of description about the village, the nearby town, the people and their culture and their attitudes. It was slow reading. But once the events of the story start moving and especially when we start following Conrad and Sanna on their return from their grandmother’s place and it starts snowing, we know that the slow pace of the story is going to change and things are going to get scary. The way Adalbert Stifter captures the beauty of the snow, the white carpet it weaves over everything, the way he makes us readers realize that the children have lost their way even before they realize it, and the stunning realization that happens (to both the children and us readers) when they reach the top of the mountain and encounter the glacier – all these are masterfully done. I found myself praying hard for the children and hoping that they would be able to come back down safely to the warmth of their home and I found my heart beating fast every time they got into more and more complicated situations. There is a scene where they wait out the night and get up in the morning hoping that during the day they can find their way back and when it is daylight, they look around and find that all around them there are high, majestic snowy peaks, brilliantly reflecting the sunshine with a kaleidoscope of colours, endlessly stretching away in all directions – a stunning scene which is beautiful and majestic and intimidating all at the same time, that our hearts beat hard, not being able to take in the beauty, and a deep pain seeps in as we are fearful for the safety of the children. It is one of the great scenes in the book.

 

I loved ‘Rock Crystal’. It was simple, beautiful and gripping. I emotionally invested in the characters, cared for them, prayed for them. There is nothing more that one could ask for in a book. I would love to read more of Stifter’s works. 

Have you read ‘Rock Crystal’? What do you think about it?

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So, this week is like Lake Constance out here, in these parts of the blogosphere. Like Lake Constance brings together three countries – Germany, Austria and Switzerland – through its shores, this week brings together German Literature Month, Joseph Roth Week and the Literature and War Readalong into one beautiful event. And the book which is the star of that event is called ‘Flight Without End’ by Joseph Roth.

Lake Constance

Lake Constance

I got Roth’s book last month and I had to really resist the temptation to read it earlier. I repeatedly opened the book and read the first few lines, but then decided not to ‘cheat’ and wait for this week to arrive, before I read it. So, I finally picked it up yesterday and read it in one sitting. I even switched off my TV after dinner (something which I almost never do – I love watching TV series after dinner) and read Roth’s book till I finished the last page.

Joseph Roth Week

So, what is this book about?

Flight Without End By Joseph Roth

‘Flight Without End’ follows the life of Franz Tunda, First Lieutenant in the Austrian army, during the First World War. Tunda is captured by the Russians and sent to a prisoner of war camp. He escapes from there and ends up in Siberia where he becomes friends with a Pole. This man Baranowicz takes him under his wing and Tunda lives in his place and helps him with his work. At some point the war ends and Tunda decides to leave and go home to his native Austria and find out whether his fiancée Irene is still waiting for him. But on his way back he discovers that the Russian Revolution is in full swing. He is captured by the Red Army and after a few tense moments he becomes a part of them. And instead of going home, he becomes a revolutionary who is fighting for the communists. He meets a girl called Natasha there, who educates him on revolutionary principles. Before he knows it, Tunda is in love with her and forgets all about his fiancée. But a love forged during the times of war and revolution is not sustainable. Once the revolution gets over and Tunda and Natasha end up in Moscow, they discover that they are very different people and fall out of love. Tunda writes articles for papers and after a while ends up in Baku, working on literary and cinematic projects for the government. He meets a local girl there and gets married to her. But after a few years of life in Baku, the yearning for home gets to him and one day he just leaves Russia and goes to his native Austria. But there is no grand welcome for him. Austria has changed drastically and is a different place now. He meets old acquaintances, his brother and sister-in-law, tries to search for Irene (who is by now married to another man), goes to Paris – the rest of the book follows Tunda’s adventures through different cities and how he discovers that the world he encounters now is very different from the world that he left when he went to war. Is he able to find Irene? Is he able to adapt himself to the new world that he encounters? You have to read the story to find out.

 

So, what do I think about Joseph Roth’s book? 

It is less about war and more about the society of that time, the post First World War time, when the old order changed and the new one was starting to occupy its place. How one man who loses his way after the war can get lost in the new world – the book beautifully depicts that. 

I got hooked into ‘Flight Without End’ after the first three pages. They describe mostly Baranowicz’ life and what he does. In a few sentences Joseph Roth paints a beautiful picture. There is a character called Ekaterina Pavlona who is described in just a few sentences in the second page and then in a couple of sentences at the end of the book. Roth describes and develops that character so beautifully and I fell in love with her, though she makes just the briefest of brief appearances and she is not really important to the story. It is such a rare talent – to be able to sketch a fully fleshed out complex character with just a few deft strokes. It was magical, to see a master in action. There were many beautiful passages in the book, which described the world of that era – the people, their attitudes, their way of thinking, their value systems – offering insights and painting beautiful sketches of that period with a few broad brushstrokes. They were a pleasure to read. 

It was also interesting to see the author come as a character in the book and make us believe that the story is true. (I don’t know whether Franz Tunda was a real person and whether his story was actually true or whether the author was just making a guest appearance in the fictional story like Somerset Maugham used to do in some of his books like ‘The Razor’s Edge’). 

I liked Joseph Roth’s book very much. I would definitely be reading my favourite passages from this book again. I also would love to read more of Roth’s books. 

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

Between the two there now existed that distance which exists between the man who gives help and the one who accepts it, a distance different from that between an older and a younger man, a native and a foreigner, someone powerful and someone who, though weak, is still independent. Although there was no contempt in the President’s gaze, it no longer showed that quiet preparedness for respect, the open-minded hospitality, which distinguished people reserve for foreigners. It may be that Tunda had touched his heart. But they were no longer as free with each other as they had been. Perhaps, after this, the old man would have trusted Tunda with one of his secrets, but he would no longer trust him with one of his daughters.

It takes a long time for men to acquire their particular countenances. It is as if they were born without their faces, their foreheads, their noses or their eyes. They acquire all these with the passage of time, and one must be patient; it takes time before anything is properly assembled. 

Then, one evening, he sat in a train travelling westward and felt as if he was not making this journey of his own free will. Things had turned out as they always had in his life, as indeed much that is important does in the lives of others, who are deceived by the more noisy and deliberate nature of their activities into believing that an element of self-determination governs their decisions and transactions. However, they forget that over and above their own brisk exertions lies the hand of fate.

In all probability the love which had developed on this basis would not have survived the attainment of legal majority, the end of the war, the Revolution, had Tunda returned. But missing persons have an irresistible charm. One may deceive someone who is not missing, a healthy man, a sick man, and under certain circumstances even a dead man. But one waits as long as is necessary for someone who has mysteriously disappeared. A woman’s love is inspired by various motives. Even waiting is one. She loves her own yearning and the substantial amount of time invested. Every woman would despise herself for not loving the man she has waited for.

Have you read ‘Flight Without End’? What do you think about it?

Other reviews : 

Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

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Three Paths to the Lake’ by Ingeborg Bachmann has four short stories and a novella (the title story). I reviewed the novella here. I finally finished reading the four short stories. Here is what I think about them. 

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The four short stories in the book address different themes.

‘Word for Word’ is about a translator who travels with her friend to Italy. During her travel she thinks about her past and meditates on language. It is a story with a focus on the theme of language and meaning – on how sometimes even if we are able to translate words and sentences from one language to another, the process is mechanical and has no meaning for us.

ThreePathsToTheLakeByIngeborgBachmann

‘Problems Problems’ is about a young woman Beatrix, who is lazy, likes sleeping for most of the day, doesn’t like working and who goes once a week to the salon to get her hair done and get herself pampered, before meeting the man with whom she is having an affair. Beatrix is in no way admirable for her work ethic (atleast for most people), but we can’t help sympathizing with her and looking at things her point of view. When the story describes how hard it is for her to get up late in the morning and get ready to face the day and how it is better to go back to sleep, we smile (and we probably want to live that life J) The story doesn’t end well though, for Beatrix. It describes how a perfect day she had planned explodes on her face and she is left to pick the pieces. It is amazing what Bachmann does here – take an everyday scene like a young woman going to a salon to get her hair done and sculpt it into a beautiful work of art.

‘Eyes to Wonder’ is the story about a young woman Miranda, who has a vision problem, but who refuses to wear corrective glasses. Or rather she wears them sparingly and not on a regular basis. She sees the world with fuzzy outlines and she is happy with that. The fact that she doesn’t see the world in a crystal clear way helps her, as she is not able to see the unpleasant things around her. She considers perfect vision as a curse rather than a blessing. The first few pages of the story explore this theme and I loved that part of the story. The story then moves into a narrative, storytelling mode and the story lost some zing after that (atleast for me).

The last short story called ‘The Barking’ is about an old woman and her relationship with her daughter-in-law. The story also touches a little bit on her relationship with her son, who is aloof and ignores her. 

I enjoyed reading all the four stories. My favourites were some of the parts of ‘Problems Problems’ and ‘Eyes of Wonder’. I would have loved ‘Eyes of Wonder’ if Bachmann had focused more on the theme rather than on the plot.

Here are a couple of my favourite passages.

From ‘Problems Problems’ 

…her aversion to this awful normality to which people subjected themselves had coincided with the discovery of a perversion : her sleeping fetish. Granted, it was perverse, but at least she was something special in the midst of all these normal fools. Genuinely perverse. Everything else was such an absolute waste of time, the simple task of getting dressed and undressed was a real strain, but nothing could compare with her addiction to deep sleep, a sleep she had found her way into, could find her way into even fully dressed on the bed with her shoes on. When she considered that childish nonsense in the past, largely provoked by curiosity, and all the rest, which she today believed to be nothing but gross exaggeration, then sleep was the only read fulfillment: it made life worth living. 

From ‘Eyes to Wonder’  

Unlike others, she doesn’t need to see him in a sharp outline, doesn’t fix anyone with her eyes, doesn’t photograph people through her glasses, but rather paints them in her own style, relying on other impressions, and now Josef is her masterpiece and has been from the very beginning. She fell in love with him at first sight, although any eye doctor would have shaken his head at that, because Miranda’s first glances only result in catastrophic errors. But she holds fast to her first glance and of all the men she has known, Josef is the one whose early sketches and subsequent, more detailed drafts – in light, in darkness, and every conceivable situation – truly satisfy Miranda

The book has a beautiful introduction by Mark Anderson, in which he offers a sophisticated exploration of the stories and their themes. He also quotes Bachmann from some of her interviews and I liked a couple of those quotes. My favourite quote was this :

“War doesn’t begin with the first bombs that are launched or with the terror that one can write about in any newspaper. It starts in the relations between people. Fascism is the first element in the relation between a man and a woman…in this society war is constant. There’s no such thing as war and peace, there is only war.”

It made me remember something similar that Michael Haneke said about his film ‘The White Band’. Being a fellow Austrian, I wonder whether he was inspired by Bachmann when he said that.


Ingeborg Bachmann

Ingeborg Bachmann

I enjoyed reading ‘Three Paths to the Lake’. My favourite story from the book was the title novella, but I also liked the other stories.

Have you read ‘Three Paths to the Lake’? What do you think about it?

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Ingeborg Bachmann is one of my favourite authors, though I have read just one of her books – the short story collection The Thirtieth Year. This year, for German Literature Month, I was hoping to read atleast one of her books. So, I started reading her second short story collection, ‘Three Paths to the Lake’. This book has four short stories and a novella, which is the title story. I finished reading the novella yesterday. This post is about that novella. I will post about the other short stories separately. 

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‘Three Paths to the Lake’ is a novella of around a hundred pages and occupies around half of the book. It is about Elisabeth, a fifty year young woman. Elisabeth is single, she is Austrian, is a journalist and works in Paris. She is seeing a younger man who is twenty two years her junior. Her father lives in a small Austrian town called Klagenfurt. Her brother is recently married and lives with his wife in London. After attending her brother’s wedding in London, Elisabeth comes home to visit her father. She spends a week with him. During that time, she tries to live the country life which she lived during her childhood, goes on treks in trails which lead to the lake, reads the newspaper with her father and occasionally meets old neighbours. During her time there, she also looks back on her life, her relationships with her father and with her brother Robert and with the other men in her life – some of whom were friends, others who were lovers, who left her and broke her heart, and one of whom she married, but who was gay and who was more a friend than a husband. At the end of the week, she goes back home to Paris, and she and her latest boyfriend decide to breakup with each other (she is calm about it while he is upset because she is not upset), and it seems that her life will take a new direction the next day and the story ends with that.

ThreePathsToTheLakeByIngeborgBachmann

Like any other Ingeborg Bachmann story, ‘Three Paths of the Lake’ is not about the plot. Though it has an interesting plot with events from the current time and the past intricately and masterfully blended together. ‘Three Paths to the Lake’ is more a commentary on life, on the relationships between parents and children, on the relationships between siblings, on the relationships between lovers and partners, on love and how elusive it is, on the complex relationships between men and women, on how our deepest beliefs can come unravelled when we stare truth on its face, on how we forge our identities and how we belong to a place, on how things change every moment and every day and every year, on how it is impossible to travel back to the past as everyone and everything has changed – the story is about this and other things. It is a beautiful meditation on life. Many times I felt that it might have been Ingeborg Bachmann’s own memoir, with the names changed and some of the events probably fictionalized for our benefit. But like in any great piece of literature, the main characters look like us. They could have been any of us. Or someone we knew.

 

The description of Elisabeth’s father at the beginning of the book reminded me of my own father. It went like this.

…there was nothing, absolutely nothing Herr Matrei needed, and in this respect he made things difficult for his children. It wasn’t just something he said, it was actually the truth : you couldn’t give him Dunhill pipes, gold lighters, expensive cigars, ties, extravagant gifts from extravagant stores, or useful things, either; he refused to accept anything, took good care of all he had, from pruning shears and shovel to the few household appliances an old man needed. He didn’t drink alcohol, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t need any suits, silk scarves, cashmere sweaters, or aftershave lotions and even Elisabeth, who over the years had developed an inimitable imaginativeness in finding the right gift for each and every kind of man, didn’t have a clue when it came to her father. His lack of needs wasn’t a quirk, it was congenital, and he would hold fast to it until his dying day.

When one of Elisabeth’s colleagues dies while trying to report from a war zone and she is having a conversation on it with her lover (her favourite of all her lovers) Trotta, he says this – one of my favourite passages from the book :

“The war you photograph for other people’s breakfasts hasn’t spared you either in the end. I don’t know, but I’m unable to shed a single tear over your friends. If someone jumps into the middle of crossfire to get a few good shots of other people dying, then getting killed is nothing special, considering the sportsmanlike ambition it involves, it’s merely an occupational hazard, nothing more.”

A pretty hard-hitting passage and one which is extremely difficult to disagree with.

My most favourite passage in the book though was this. It is about the relationship between women and men.

There was only one hope she didn’t and wouldn’t allow herself to hold on to : that if, in almost thirty years, she hadn’t found a man, not a single one, who was exclusively significant for her, who had become inevitable to her, someone who was strong and brought her the mystery she had been waiting for, not a single one who was really a man and not an eccentric, a weakling or one of the needy the world was full of – then the man simply didn’t exist, and as long as this New Man did not exist, one could only be friendly and kind to one another, for a while. There was nothing more to make of it, and it would be best if women and men kept their distance and had nothing to do with each other until both had found their way out of the tangle and confusion, the discrepancy inherent in all relationships. Perhaps one day something else might come along but only then, and it would be strong and mysterious and have real greatness, something to which each could once again submit.

Yes, if we are not able to find the person of our dreams, it is better to just be friendly and as Voltaire says in ‘Candide’, live a simple life and tend to our own garden. That is not a bad life – it is simple and beautiful and rewarding.

When I read Ingeborg Bachmann’s other short story collection ‘The Thirtieth Year’, I found it philosophical and intellectually demanding. I was thinking that ‘Three Paths to the Lake’ would be similar. But it wasn’t. It was definitely philosophical. But it was more accessible. (It is either that or I must have become a more sophisticated reader in the short space of a year). Bachmann’s prose flows beautifully and though there are long sentences with multiple clauses, while reading them, one doesn’t notice their length or complexity. Bachmann makes reading a difficult book seem quite easy with her brilliant prose style. I don’t know how she managed to achieve that.

With every story I read, Ingeborg Bachmann keeps getting better and better. I think ‘Three Paths to the Lake’ is my favourite Ingeborg Bachmann story yet. I loved it. I will be definitely reading it again. I am looking forward to reading the other stories in the book. And if I have time left still, I hope to read her novel ‘Malina’.


Ingeborg Bachmann

Ingeborg Bachmann

I can’t finish this post without saying this. One of my perennial regrets will always be that dear Inge left behind only a small body of work – two slim short story collections, one novel, two novel fragments, one collection of poetry, one slim war diary and one collection of letters. I wish she had written more. I wish she had lived longer. But I am grateful that she wrote what she did and left behind these beautiful, slim, literary masterpieces. My life would have been poorer without them.

Have you read ‘Three Paths to the Lake’? What do you think about it?

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My German Literature Month this year hasn’t gone well so far. I have been able to read just one book till now. Today, I thought I will try to do something about it. I thought I will read one of my old favourites and hope that it will bring back my reading mojo. So, I read ‘Immensee’ by Theodor Storm. 

Immensee By Theodor Storm

‘Immensee’ is around forty pages long. So, it is closer to a long short story or a short novella. The story starts with an old man getting back from a long walk to the place that he is staying. He goes into his room, sits on a chair and rests. After a brief while he looks at an old picture of a beautiful woman and says ‘Elisabeth’. His mind goes back to his younger days. The story then takes us back to the past when the old man was a boy of ten called Reinhard and his best friend and sweetheart was a girl called Elisabeth who is five. They are always together, he tells stories to her, they play at the forest near their homes, they go on picnics together with other children and pick strawberries. Unfortunately, the time comes when the boy has to go to a bigger town to study. He promises the girl that he will write to her regularly and will come back soon. The boy writes down all the stories that he used to tell the girl – her favourite ones – and keeps sending them to her. He also keeps a notebook in which he writes poems about the girl, about all the experiences they have gone through. Both of them are very much in love, though they don’t articulate that explicitly. But as in all the best love stories, things don’t go according to plan. The physical distance creates a barrier between a boy and the girl and they try bridging it every time they meet, but it becomes harder and harder. What happens to Reinhard and Elisabeth? Does the story have a happy ending? I can go on and tell you what happens next, but I think you should read the story to find out. After all, it is only forty pages long 🙂

I first read ‘Immensee’ three years back and loved it at that time. So, I was a bit worried when I read it again, because I was afraid of what will happen if my re-reading experience was not as good as the original one. Well, I needn’t have worried. The book was beautiful during my re-read too. It was beautiful in a different way though. I noticed things that I didn’t notice the first time – for example a gypsy singer who comes at the beginning of the story makes an appearance in the end, singing her favourite song which intensifies the poignant mood of the story. I also loved Theodor Storm’s beautiful descriptions of nature – the trees and the forest and the bees and the larks and the linnet and the canary and the river and the early morning and the mist and the dew and the first rays of the morning sun – it was vintage Storm. The story was worth reading for this beautiful evocation of nature alone. Nature was there even in the title – a footnote said that ‘Immensee’ stood for ‘Lake of the Bees’ (though some readers have a problem with this translation). Theodor Storm’s prose also gives an atmospheric, melancholic feel to the story, which makes one’s heart ache. Not the heartbreaking kind, but the mild, melancholic ache, which refuses to go away.

 

I also spotted a reference to India in the story, which made me smile. It went like this : 

Elisabeth : Are there no lions either?

Reinhard : Lions? Are there lions? In India, yes. The heathen priests harness them to their carriages, and drive about the desert with them. When I’m big, I mean to go out there myself. It is thousands of times more beautiful in that country than it is here at home; there’s no winter at all there.

One part of that dialogue is totally true. There is no winter in India. One of my college professors used to joke that there were only three seasons in India : hot, hotter and hottest!

There were many songs and poems scattered throughout the book like pearls. They were all beautiful. My favourites were the song which the gypsy girl sings in a tavern during Christmas Eve (it ends with ‘I must die alone’) and the poem which Reinhard and Elisabeth read towards the end of the story, ‘By my mother’s hard decree’. I think the poems and the songs must be more beautiful in the original German.

I also loved the fact that many of the important things in the story are implied but not explicitly stated. It doesn’t mean that they are ambiguous and left to the reader’s interpretation – they are clear enough but implied. Theodor Storm does that masterfully. In the last scene a new character makes an appearance in one sentence and we can’t help asking ourselves what that meant – is there a twist in the story here? Who is this Bridget? Is there something here that Storm implies? Isn’t this a straightforward story but one in which a lot of stuff happens in the gap between the last and the last-but-one chapters? I would love to hear your thoughts on it, if you have read the story 

 

I will leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

 

Elisabeth : And who, pray, made all these pretty songs?.

Eric : Oh, you can tell that by listening to the rubbishy things – tailors’ apprentices and barbers and suchlike merry folk.

Reinhard : They are not made; they grow, they drop from the clouds, they float over the land like gossamer, hither and thither, and are sung in a thousand places at the same time. We discover in these songs our very inmost activities and sufferings : it is as if we all had helped to write them.

 

I am glad I re-read ‘Immensee’. I fell in love with it all over again, with the beautiful Elisabeth and the wonderful Reinhard and the kind Eric and the beautiful landscape that Theodor Storm creates. I think I will be reading it again. Maybe after a few years.

Have you read ‘Immensee’? What do you think about it?

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One of my favourite friends told me about ‘The Art of Hearing Heartbeats’ last year. And when I got it as a present sometime back, I was really excited. Now, when German Literature Month arrived, I thought it should be the first book that I should read. 

The Art Of Hearing Heartbeats By Jan Philipp Sendker

The story told in ‘The Art of Hearing Heartbeats’ is the story of a quest. Julia Win is a successful lawyer. When she graduated from law school her whole family – her father, mother and brother – celebrate it. Then the next day her father says that he is going on a business trip and never comes back. That is the last that Julia sees of him. After being shocked and heartbroken, the family puts their life back together and move on. Or try to. But Julia is not able to forget her father and four years after his disappearance, she goes on a quest in search of him. Julia’s father is of Burmese origin, while her mother is American. No one in the family knows what her father did in the first twenty years of his life before he came to America. Julia thinks of trying to find that out to see if it would help her find her father again. She tracks her father to a small Burmese town called Kalaw. There in a teahouse, she meets an old man called U Ba. U Ba tells her that he knew her father and his story and proceeds to tell Julia about her father’s initial years. What follow next is Julia’s father’s story, her reaction to it, and some surprising revelations in the end. How U Ba knows so much about her and her family is another thing which is revealed in the end.

So, what do I think of the book? The story is a beautiful, touching love story. It is also the story of the quest. What is not to like in that? That is the kind of story that has appealed to us humans for centuries. The story flows smoothly without any unnecessary pauses and there are some real surprises in the end. A couple of them atleast. I could guess one of them. Sendker’s prose is simple and so the pages fly. But also, there are beautiful passages throughout the book – beautiful thoughts which make us re-read those passages again. The depiction of Burmese culture of a particular era is fascinating. I don’t know whether Burma is the same today as it is depicted in the book, but it was an insightful window into a new culture for me. The novel uses a fairytale frame to present the whole story which was quite interesting too. In some ways the whole book was a fairytale too. And, of course, there is a main character called Su Kyi. You would have guessed that, of course, this being a novel about Burma and all.

 

So, did I like ‘The Art of Hearing Heartbeats’? Yes, I did. I loved the beautiful thoughts in it and the fairytale love story. I will be reading those beautiful passages again. The book also asks some interesting questions – on whether we really know who our parents or partners are and whether we are comfortable in getting acquainted with their pasts. I loved that part of the book. I also think that the book will make a good movie. Hope one of the producers is looking at it.

 

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

 

     And so there must be in life something like a catastrophic turning point, when the world as we know it ceases to exist. A moment that transforms us into a different person from one heartbeat to the next. The moment when a lover confesses that there’s someone else and that he’s leaving. Or the day we bury a father or mother or best friend. Or the moment when the doctor informs us of a malignant brain tumor.

      Or are such moments merely the dramatic conclusions of lengthier processes, conclusions we could have foreseen if we had only read other portents rather than disregarding them? 

      And if these turning points are real, are we aware of them as they happen, or do we recognize the discontinuity only much later, in hindsight?

 

“It’s odd, Julia, but a confession, a disclosure, is worthless when it comes at the wrong moment. If it’s too early, it overwhelms us. We’re not ready for it and can’t yet appreciate it. If it’s too late, the opportunity is lost. The mistrust and the disappointment are already too great; the door is already closed. In either case, the very thing that ought to foster intimacy just creates distance.”

 

Tin Win knelt motionless before the old man, listening intently. It was not the words or sentences as such that transfixed him. It was the voice. A gentle and melodic intoning, subtle and well-tempered like the soft ringing of bells of the monastery tower, bells that needed only a breeze to set them ringing. It was a voice that reminded Tin Win of birds at dawn, of Su Kyi’s quiet and even breathing as she lay sleeping next to him. He did not merely hear the voice; he felt it on his skin like two hands. He wanted nothing more than to entrust the weight of his body to that voice. The weight of his soul. Something happened then for the first time that would happen ever more frequently in the future. Tin Win saw the sounds – saw them as smoke rising from a fire into the air and spreading throughout the room, wafting back and forth in gentle waves, moved as if by an unseen hand, curling and dancing and slowly dissipating.

The soft rustling of leaves intermingled with the voices. It was more than a simple rustling, though. Tin Win realized that leaves, like human voices, each had their own characteristic timbre. Just as with colors, there were shades of rustling. He heard thin twigs rubbing together and leaves brushing against one another. He heard individual leaves dropping lightly to the ground in front of him. Even as they drifted through the air, he noticed that no two leaves sounded alike. He heard buzzing and blowing, chirping and cheeping, rushing and rumbling. A daunting realization was creeping up on him. Might there be, parallel to the world of shapes and colors, an entire world of voices and sounds, of noises and tones? A hidden realm of the senses, all around us, but usually inaccessible to us? A world perhaps even more exhilarating and mysterious than the visible world?

 

Have you read ‘The Art of Hearing Heartbeats’? What do you think about it?

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