Archive for the ‘German Literature Month’ Category

I read Alina Bronsky’sMy Grandmother’s Braid‘ recently, and liked it very much. So I decided to read her first book ‘Broken Glass Park‘. I read this for ‘German Literature Month’ (#GermanLitMonth) hosted by Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life’, which runs through the whole of November.

Sascha Naimann lives with her mom and her younger brother and sister. One day a tragedy happens in her family. Sascha decides to avenge this and kill the perpetrator. What happens after that forms the rest of the story. This is the vaguest of the vague description of the story. You need to read the book to find out more. Don’t want to spoil your reading pleasure by telling you more 

There is good news and bad news. First, the good news. Sascha is a irreverent, fascinating character. She is also the narrator of the story and she doesn’t mince any words, and she calls a spade a spade. It is very interesting to see the world through her eyes. Alina Bronsky’s writing is sharp and cuts like a knife. It is also filled with style and humour. It is a pleasure to read. The pages just fly. I read most of the book today, and I didn’t know how the pages flew by! One of my favourite passages comes in the beginning of the book and it goes like this –

“My name is Sascha Naimann. I’m not a guy, even though everyone in this country seems to think so when they hear my name. I’ve given up counting how often I’ve had to explain it to people. Sascha is a short form of Alexander and Alexandra. I’m an Alexandra. But my name is Sascha—that’s what my mother always called me, and that’s what I want to be called. When people address me as Alexandra, I don’t even react. That used to happen a lot more when I was new in school. These days it only happens when there’s a new teacher.”

I loved the first part of the book, in which Sascha describes the people in her life and what happened and what she plans to do about it. There is a character called Maria who helps out Sascha and her family, who is fascinating.

Now, the bad news. In the second part of the book, Sascha packs her backpack, leaves her home, and goes on a Holden Caulfield kind of adventure, meeting unknown people and sometimes doing crazy stuff. Some parts of this were interesting, but I didn’t like this as much as the first part. I wanted to know more about how Sascha was plotting her revenge and whether she was able to pull it off. This sidetrack into a totally different story felt like a distracting digression. However, if we look at the story as a coming-of-age story, instead of as a revenge story, it looks much better. So probably I was underwhelmed by the second part because of my own expectation.

Inspite of all this, I enjoyed reading ‘Broken Glass Park‘. Mostly because of Alina Bronsky’s writing. I have to say though that I loved ‘My Grandmother’s Braid‘ more.

Have you read ‘Broken Glass Park‘ or other books by Alina Bronsky?


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I’ve wanted to read ‘The Nibelungenlied‘ for a long time, ever since I discovered it. It is a German epic from the 13th century and it has been regarded as the German equivalent of ‘The Iliad’ by some readers. I finally got to read it today. I have two translations of this epic, an old one by D.G.Mowatt, and a new one by William Whobrey. I read the William Whobrey one, while dipping occasionally into the Mowatt one. I read this for ‘German Literature Month’ (#GermanLitMonth) hosted by Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life’, which runs through the whole of November.

The William Whobrey translation

A handsome prince arrives in a land which has a beautiful princess. His desire is to win her hand. The story starts in a fairytale fashion like this. After this, there are lots of adventures, love, romance, friendship, some war in which the good guys win. Then there is jealousy, treachery, betrayal, one of the good characters gets killed, another swears vengeance, and after many complicated happenings, the avenging angel gets her vengeance. But things don’t go according to plan, and nearly everyone is dead in the end.

The D.G.Mowatt translation

I liked the first half of the book, till one of the main characters gets killed. It had all the things I look forward to, in a classical epic – adventure, romance, friendship. The last one-fourth of the book is filled with fighting and violence – it is more bloody than the terrible episodes of ‘Game of Thrones’. Imagine how the situation would be if it is the ‘Red Wedding’ times ten! It is not for the faint-hearted and I found that part hard to read.

One of my favourite parts of the book involved a warrior queen called Brunhild. She gets married, and then this happens.

She said, “My dear knight, let it be. What you were hoping for is not going to happen. You can rest assured that I’m going to stay a virgin until I’ve heard the whole story.”

Gunther was furious at her. He forced himself on her and tore her nightgown, but that remarkable women in turn grabbed a belt, a strong band that she wore around her waist. She made the king suffer with it. She tied up his feet and his hands, carried him to a nail protruding from the wall, and hung him on it for disturbing her sleep. Sex was out of the question. In fact, she nearly killed him, she was that strong.

Then the one who thought he should be the master began to plead. “My dear queen, please let me loose! I know that I can never get the better of you, dear lady, and I promise I’ll never lie so closely beside you again.”

She didn’t care how uncomfortable he was. She was perfectly comfortable in bed, and so he hung there all night until the morning light shone through the window. If he had ever had any strength, there was no sign of it now.

The maiden asked, “Tell me now, Lord Gunther, wouldn’t it be humiliating if your chamberlains found you had been tied up by a woman?”

I laughed when I read that 😆 I fell in love with Brunhild, of course 😊 Who wouldn’t? It is so amazing that the poet who wrote this epic, wrote this scene 800 years back!

Brunhild does some questionable stuff after this scene, but I liked her till the end. I wish there is a story which describes how she became a warrior queen, at a time when women from the royal family stayed inside the palace. That story will be fascinating to read.

I’m glad I finally got to read ‘The Nibelungenlied‘. I won’t say that I loved it, but I liked parts of it, and I’m glad I read it. It was made into a two-part movie by Fritz Lang and  parts of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas are based on this epic. I want to watch them both sometime.

Have you read ‘The Nibelungenlied‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Nelly Sachs a few years back. I saw her photo and it looked like a photo of a gentle aunt or grandma that we all might have. It was love at first sight for me. I went and got a poetry collection by her and dipped into it. It was mostly moving and heartbreaking poems. I wanted to read her biography, and after some search I discovered this one, ‘Nelly Sachs, Flight and Metamorphosis‘ by Aris Fioretos . I was very excited! I read this for ‘German Literature Month’ (#GermanLitMonth) hosted by Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life’, which runs through the whole of November.

Nelly Sachs was born in a privileged family and her father was a small industrialist. She never married and was single all her life. When she was young she fell in love with someone, but her dad didn’t approve of her lover, and so she stayed single. Her dad fell ill at some point, and Nelly Sachs took care of him for years. After he died, her mom fell ill, and Nelly Sachs took care of her mom for years. When her mom passed, Nelly Sachs was sixty years old. Her life was a lifetime of service dedicated to her parents.

Nelly Sachs at around the time she won the Nobel Prize

When the Nazis came to power, and started bringing laws which squeezed the Jewish community, Nelly Sachs and her mom suffered because they were Jewish. At some point, exactly on the day she got a letter from the government that she had to report to a labour camp, she and her mom, with the help of friends, fled to Sweden. Nelly Sachs was fifty years old then. She spent the next thirty years in Sweden, initially as a refugee, and later as a Swedish citizen. During her time in Sweden, Nelly Sachs wrote poems which were mostly about the Holocaust. They were well received and acclaimed, but in small literary circles. In the 1960s, Nelly Sachs was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for her moving, powerful poetry.

After her mom passed, Nelly Sachs fell into a deep depression. All the anguish, that she had probably held in her heart for years, appeared to have come out. She imagined that the followers of the Nazis were pursuing her again. She had to get herself admitted to the hospital multiple times to take care of her mental health. Her greatest, most famous years as a poet, when she won many literary prizes, including the Nobel, were also the years filled with deep depression. Nelly Sachs died when she was seventy-nine. Her long life of suffering and anxiety, which was also filled with beauty, friendship and people whom she could call family, came to an end.

Nelly Sachs was virtually unknown in the wider literary world before she won the Nobel Prize. After a few moments of fame, when she won the Nobel, she has slipped into obscurity now, and is forgotten today. It is hard to find her poetry in English translation. For many years a small indie publisher called Green Integer, kept two volumes of her poetry collection in print. Even those two volumes are out-of-print now.

Nelly Sachs had a modest opinion about herself. She said, “I have never been a poet, you know. To this day I’ve never owned a desk – my manuscripts are here in the kitchen cupboard…I’m not a literary person. Actually, I’m a real housewife. Not a poet at all.”

Nelly Sachs’ poetry can be divided into two periods. From the time she started writing till 1940, when she lived her life in Germany, and from 1940 till 1970, when she lived in Sweden. There is a distinct difference between her poems of these two periods – they are like chalk and cheese. The poems she wrote during her German years were like traditional German poetry and were on familiar German themes, on fairy tales, fantasy, love, nature. The poems written during her Swedish years were mostly about the Holocaust. When one of her compilers tried publishing a collection of her poetry in later years, Nelly Sachs asked him to remove the poems from her German years, because she wanted to forget them. Her poems from that time are hard to find now.

This book is a beautiful, illustrated biography, and it talks about all this and more. There are photographs in every page, which are deeply linked to the particular section, photographs of books, places, documents, people, objects. The text with pictures brings us a deeply rich reading experience.

The book is not always smooth going. The biographical parts of it flow smoothly. I loved reading about Nelly Sachs’ friends especially, with whom she had really close relationships, and who were her soul sisters, some of whom took great risk during the Nazi era, and helped her escape the country. I also loved reading about her friendship with the poet, Paul Celan, whom she treated as her own brother, though she was thirty years older than him. Celan described their friendship beautifully like this – “Between Paris and Stockholm runs the meridian of pain and solace.” Outside of her parents, Nelly Sachs didn’t have a family, but these friends were her family, and they helped her and were there with her till the end. As they say, we are born into our biological family, about whom we can’t do much, but we can create our own family filled with the people whom we love and who love us back, and Nelly Sachs did exactly that.

The poetry parts of the book were challenging to read, and demanded a lot of attention. I’m not a big fan of analyzing poetry – I love reading poems and contemplate on them and let them do their magic. So reading the analysis of the poems was extra hard for me. The book has a fascinating section which describes how the Nazis restricted Jewish writers and artists and finally banned them. It was a very insightful and heartbreaking part to read.

I loved reading Nelly Sachs’ biography. This is the only biography of hers available in English. It is a labour of love and the author Aris Fioretos has to be commended for his sensitive portrayal of this beautiful poet as well as his deep research into those times.

I’m sharing one of my favourite Nelly Sachs poems here. It makes me cry everytime I read it.

If I only knew

If I only knew

On what your last look rested.

Was it a stone that had drunk

So many last looks that they fell

Blindly upon its blindness?

Or was it earth,

Enough to fill a shoe,

And black already

With so much parting

And with so much killing?

Or was it your last road

That brought you a farewell from all the roads

You had walked?

A puddle, a bit of shining metal,

Perhaps the buckle of your enemy’s belt,

Or some other small augury

Of heaven?

Or did this earth,

Which lets no one depart unloved,

Send you a bird-sign through the air,

Reminding your soul that it quivered

In the torment of its burnt body?

– Translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead

Have you heard of Nelly Sachs? Have you read any of her poems?

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Favourite quotes from the book, as promised 😊 You can find my review of the book here. Read this for German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’.

Ingrid Bergman as Joan Madou in the film adaptation of ‘Arc de Triomphe

“The cool bright face which didn’t ask for anything, which simply existed, waiting – it was an empty face, he thought; a face that could change with any wind of expression. One could dream into it anything. It was like a beautiful empty house waiting for carpets and pictures. It had all possibilities…It depended on the one who filled it. How limited by comparison was all that is already completed and labeled –”

“Because I love you.”
“How she handles that word, Ravic thought. Without deliberation, like an empty bowl. She fills it with something and calls it love. With how many things had it been filled already! With fear of being alone –  with stimulation through another ego – with the boosting of one’s self-reliance with the glittering reflection of one’s fantasy but who really knows? Wasn’t what I said about growing old together the stupidest thing of all? Isn’t she far more right with her spontaneousness? And why do I sit here on a winter night, between wars, and spout words like a schoolmaster? Why do I resist, instead of plunging myself into it disbelievingly?”

“The early day blew its pure breath from afar, across all the dirty backyards and the smoky roofs, into the window, and there was still the breath of woods and plains in it.”

“Love! How much that word had to cover! From the softest caress of the skin to the most remote excitement of the spirit, from the simple desire for a family to the convulsions of death, from insatiable passion to Jacob’s struggle with the angel. Here am I, Ravic thought, a man of more than forty years, trained in many schools, with experience and knowledge, who has been beaten down and has risen again, sifted through the filter of the years, having become more callous, more critical, colder – I did not want it and I did not believe it, I did not think it would come again – and now here it is and all my experience is of no avail, all the knowledge makes it only the more burning – and what burns better in the fire of the emotions than dry cynicism and the stacked wood of the critical years?”

“Something had gone wrong, at some point the ray of his imagination had failed to hit the mirror, the mirror that caught it and threw it back intensified into itself, and now the ray had shot beyond into the blind sphere of the unfillable and nothing could bring it back again, not one mirror or a thousand mirrors. They could only catch a part of it, but never bring it back; by now its specter moved forlornly through the empty heavens of love and only filled them with radiant mist which no longer had any shape and which could never again become a rainbow around a beloved head. The magic circle was broken, the lamentation remained, but hope lay shattered.”

“Could he have held her? Could he have held her if he had been different? But what could be held? Only an illusion, little else. But wasn’t an illusion enough? Could one ever attain more? Who knew anything about the black whirlpool of life, namelessly seething beneath our senses, which, out of empty uproar, turned it into things, a table, a lamp, home and You and love? There was only a foreboding and a frightening twilight. Was it not enough?

It was not enough. It was enough only if one believed in it. Once the crystal had burst under the hammers of doubt one could only cement it together, but nothing more. Cement it, lie about it, and watch the broken light that once had been a white splendor. Nothing came back. Nothing reshaped itself. Nothing. Even if Joan came back it would not be the same again. A crystal cemented together. The hour had been missed. Nothing would bring it back.”

“Suddenly heavy thunder rumbled over the city. Raindrops splashed on the bushes. Ravic got up. He saw the street mottled with black silver. The rain began to sing. The heavy drops beat warmly against his face. And suddenly he no longer knew whether he was ludicrous, or miserable, whether he was suffering or not – he only knew that he was alive. He was alive! He was there, it held him again, it shook him, he was not a spectator any longer, not an onlooker from outside; the great splendor of uncontrollable feeling shot through his veins again like fire through a furnace; it scarcely mattered whether he was happy or unhappy, he was alive and he was fully aware that he was alive and that was enough.

He stood in the rain which was pouring down upon him like heavenly machine-gun fire. He stood there and he was rain and form and water and earth; the lightning from the horizon crossed within him, he was creature, element; nothing any longer had a name and was thereby made lonesome, everything was the same, we, the pouring rain, the pale fires above the roofs, the earth which seemed to swell; there were no longer any frontiers and he belonged to all this and happiness and unhappiness were empty husjs cast off by the overpowering sensation of being alive and feeling it.”

“He…placed a pile of books on the table by his bed. He had bought them two days before in order to have something to read in case he was not able to sleep. It was a strange thing about books – they were becoming more and more important to him. They were not a substitute for everything, but they reached into a sphere where nothing else could reach. In the first years he had not touched books; they had been lifeless in comparison with what had happened. But now they had become a wall; if they did not protect, at least one could lean against them. They did not help much; but they kept one from final despair in a time that was racing back into darkness. That was enough. Once thoughts had been thought that were despised and ridiculed today; but they had been thought and they would remain alive and that was enough.”

Which of these three quotes do you like the most? 😊

Quote 1

Kate : “Which century would you like to live in, Ravic, if you could choose?”

Ravic : “In this one. Otherwise I’d be dead and some idiot would be wearing my costume to this party.”

Kate : “I don’t mean that. I mean, in which would you like to live your life over again.”

Ravic : “Just the same. In ours. It is the lousiest, bloodiest, most corrupt, colorless, cowardly, and dirty so far – but nevertheless.”

Kate : “I wouldn’t. In this one. In the seventeenth. Or in an earlier one. In any only not in ours.”

– From ‘Arc de Triomphe’ by Erich Maria Remarque

Quote 2

“Let others praise ancient times; I am glad I was born in these.”


Quote 3

“Someday, all centuries will end up looking alike under the stars’ dust. For now I’m content just to cherish my favourite centuries, beginning with mine, so fierce and sly, brilliantly fuelled by science, unquenchable in its rage against nature.”

– From ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon‘ by Nicole Brossard

Have you read ‘Arc de Triomphe‘? What do you think about it?

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I’ve wanted to read Erich Maria Remarque’sArc de Triomphe‘ for a long time. I discovered it through Caroline’s (from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat‘) recommendation. I finally started reading it at the beginning of this month, but I couldn’t make much progress because I was following the cricket world cup. The world cup ended a couple of days back, and then I did a couple of days of readathoning and here I am. I read it for German Literature Month hosted by Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’.

The story told in ‘Arc de Triomphe‘ goes like this. It is the year 1936. A man walks in the streets of Paris in the middle of the night. He finds a woman on the way, who looks lost and despondent. This man offers to take her to her home or wherever she is staying. She refuses to go back. Then he decides to take her to his place. Who is this mysterious woman who is out late in the middle of the night? Who is this man? What happens between them? You have to read the story to find out 😊

Arc de Triomphe‘ bring the Paris of that era vividly alive. We meet refugees who don’t have any documents and who live in constant fear of being deported. (Nothing much has changed today.) There are refugees who are doctors who help people by performing surgeries. But it is illegal, and if they are caught, they’ll end up in prison. Refugees fall in love, but the future of their lives looks uncertain. The political situation is also uncertain with war looming ahead. There are also refugees who live in constant fear of meeting their Nazi torturers again.

In the midst of all this, Erich Maria Remarque tells us a beautiful love story. Yes, that is right. This is a love story. Atleast, a big part of it is. I didn’t expect that. Remarque’s stories always have a love story embedded in, but predominantly his books are about war or about the onset of war, or life between wars. But a significant part of this book is about love and the relationship between two people. Remarque shows us that he is very good at writing a love story, and those parts of the book are a pure pleasure to read, because the prose zings and pulls our heartstrings.

There are two complaints I have about the book though. The first is the title. The original title of the book is ‘Arc de Triomphe’. It is the name of a monument in Paris. The translators have translated it to ‘Arch of Triumph’. I reject the translated title and refuse to use it. It is frustrating when translators do stuff like this. Please leave the Arc de Triomphe alone. The second complaint I have is about the ending. Remarque does what he normally does. He goes and kills off one of the main characters. In other books of his, sometimes there is reason and logic in this. But in this book, it was just thrust in without any reason. It felt like a cinematic ending forcibly thrust into the story to make the reader cry. Why Remarque, why?

So where does ‘Arc de Triomphe’ stand in the pantheon of Remarque novels? I’ve read only three till now – ‘All Quiet on the Western Front‘, ‘A Time to Love and a Time to Die‘ and now ‘Arc de Triomphe’. They are all different books and I loved them all. I think ‘A Time to Love and a Time to Die’ is probably my favourite, but if I think again, it is so hard to choose. They are all beautiful.

There are so many beautiful passages in the book that I’d like to share. But I’m too tired and too lazy now to look through the book again. Maybe, I’ll do that later and write a separate post with my favourite quotes.

I loved ‘Arc de Triomphe‘. There is a film adaptation of the book starring Ingrid Bergman. I want to watch it sometime.

Have you read ‘Arc de Triomphe‘? What do you think about it? Have you read other Erich Maria Remarque books?

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I discovered Peter Handke’sA Sorrow Beyond Dreams’ through a friend’s recommendation. I’ve been hesitant to read Peter Handke because of all the controversies surrounding him, but this book was about his mom and so I couldn’t resist. I read it for German Literature Month (#GermanLitMonth) hosted by Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’ which is celebrated for the whole of November, and which is in its 12th season this year.

The book is not really a book. It can be called a long essay. It starts with Peter Handke describing his mom’s suicide. Then he describes her life, as much of it as he has discovered, how she grew up in poor and challenging conditions, tried escaping from it, but things didn’t go as planned, and how she came back to it. It was very moving and heartbreaking. When Handke becomes a writer and is able to help his mom, things get better, but this story doesn’t have a happy ending as the story of Édouard Louis’ mom has in ‘A Woman’s Battles and Transformations’.

Peter Handke’s story about his mom is moving and heartbreaking. It was published nearly fifty years back and I’m surprised that it was not that well-known until recently. It is up there with the great stories of mothers by Annie Ernaux, Édouard Louis and Erwin Mortier.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“The danger of all these abstractions and formulations is of course that they tend to become independent. When that happens, the individual that gave rise to them is forgotten—like images in a dream, phrases and sentences enter into a chain reaction, and the result is a literary ritual in which an individual life ceases to be anything more than a pretext. These two dangers—the danger of merely telling what happened and the danger of a human individual becoming painlessly submerged in poetic sentences—have slowed down my writing, because in every sentence I am afraid of losing my balance. This is true of every literary effort, but especially in this case, where the facts are so overwhelming that there is hardly anything to think out.”

“She read newspapers, but preferred books with stories that she could compare with her own life…“I’m not like that”, she sometimes said, as though the author had written about her. To her, every book was an account of her own life, and in reading she came to life; for the first time, she came out of her shell; she learned to talk about herself; and with each book she had more ideas on the subject. Little by little, I learned something about her. Up until then she had got on her own nerves, her own presence had made her uncomfortable; now she lost herself in reading and conversation, and emerged with a new feeling about herself. “It’s making me young again.” True, books to her were only stories out of the past, never dreams of the future; in them she found everything she had missed and would never make good. Early in life she had dismissed all thought of a future. Thus, her second spring was merely a transfiguration of her past experience. Literature didn’t teach her to start thinking of herself but showed her it was too late for that. She could have made something of herself. Now, at the most, she gave some thought to herself, and now and then after shopping she would treat herself to a cup of coffee at the tavern and worry a little less about what people might think.”

Have you read ‘A Sorrow Beyond Dreams‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Frank Schätzing’sThe Swarm‘ recently by accident. I’ve never read sci-fi / speculative fiction written in German before and so decided to read this for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

The story starts with the disappearance of fishermen in the coast of Chile. Then whales start attacking people at the Canadian coast, something which is unheard of. Strange eyeless crabs invade multiple cities in the U.S. A lobster ends up in a restaurant kitchen in France, and it is infected with something strange and the chef who is trying to cook it dies. This leads to further infection and an epidemic. In the North sea, at the place where the Norwegian oil wells are, strange worms start appearing near the wells. This last thing leads to a big disaster as the continental collapses there leading to a huge tsunami. Scientists investigate these strange happenings, initially separately, and then together. They suspect that all these strange happenings arise from a common cause. Then the stunning truth is suspected and revealed and what happens after that forms the rest of the story.

I loved the science part of the book. Frank Schätzing has done his research well and the science part of the story is very impressive – we can learn a lot about oceanography, continental shelves, the different kinds of waves, the origin of tsunamis, deep sea exploration, whales and other deep sea beings, oil drilling in the deep, the technology involved in all this. I learnt a lot about all these while reading the book. It was almost like reading Tom Clancy’s ‘The Hunt for Red October’, in which the nonfiction part outweighs the fiction part of the book. The speculative part of the book, especially the main hypothesis, is very interesting. I can’t tell you what it is, in case you plan to read the book. The story is interesting and makes us want to turn the page to find out what happens next. In a book of this size, the pace is uneven as one would expect, and some parts of the story move faster than the others. Frank Schätzing’s prose is functional and workmanlike, as could be expected in a plot-based novel and moves the story nicely along. But occasionally, once in a hundred pages, there is a beautiful passage. Schätzing is German, after all. He can’t just keep writing plain vanilla prose. The romance parts of the book are very unconvincing and laughable though 😄 Clearly, writing romance scenes is not Schätzing’s thing 😄

One curious thing I noticed towards the end of the book, after all the revelations, was that nearly all the bad guys in the story were Americans. It was almost as if, Frank Schätzing had said to himself – “I’m tired of all the thrillers written in the last 70 years, in which the bad guy is German (or Russian or East European), while the good guy is American who comes and saves the world. I want to change this. I want to write a novel in which all the bad guys are Americans.” Then he went and wrote this 1000-page novel. One can almost imagine him, receiving the first copy of this book, after it had been printed, and thumping it on his writing desk and saying “Take that!” I couldn’t stop laughing when I thought about this 😆

I enjoyed reading ‘The Swarm‘. I wouldn’t say that I loved it, but I definitely liked it. I rarely read 1000-page novels. I’ve read only a handful of them in my life. I can count them in one hand. It is not like I don’t like 1000-page chunksters. I love them and I buy them and start reading them but give up halfway through. My home is filled with half-read 1000-page chunksters. So, I was pretty proud of myself when I finished this book. I hesitated to pick it initially, because of its size, but it was so tempting that I couldn’t resist it any longer, and I decided to dip my toe in and see how it went. I’m happy to report that five days later, I’ve finished reading this book. I discovered another book by Frank Schätzing which is even longer. He seems to be the German Neal Stephenson, specializing in chunksters. It is safe to say that I won’t be picking up another Frank Schätzing book anytime soon 😊 But I’m glad I read this one.

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

“At sea the world was just water and sky, with little to tell them apart. There were no visual markers, which meant that on clear days, the sense of infinity could suck you into space, and when it was wet, you never knew if you were on the surface or somewhere beneath it. Even hardened sailors found the monotony of constant rain depressing. The horizon dimmed as dark waves merged with banks of thick grey cloud, robbing the universe of light, shape and hope in a vision of desolation.”

“Time was of no importance on the land, where the routines and patterns of cities and settlements ceased to exist. Distances weren’t measured in kilometres or miles but in days. Two days to this place, and half a day to that. It was no help to know that it was fifty kilometres to your destination, if the route was filled with obstacles like pack ice or crevasses. Nature had no respect for human plans. The next second could be fraught with imponderables, so people lived for the present. The land followed its own rhythm, and the Inuit submitted to it. Thousands of years as nomads had taught them that that was the way to gain mastery. Through the first half of the twentieth century they had continued to roam the land freely, and decades later the nomadic lifestyle still suited them better than being confined to one place by a house.”

“Research shows that human beings are incapable of discerning intelligence beyond a certain micro- or meta- threshold. For us to perceive intelligence, it has to fit within our behavioural framework. If we were to encounter intelligence operating outside that framework – on a micro- level, for instance – we would fail to see it. Similarly, if we were to come into contact with a far higher intelligence, a mind vastly superior to our own, we would see only chaos, as its reasoning would elude us. Decisions taken by a higher instance of intelligence would prove inscrutable to our intellect, having been made within parameters beyond the reach of human understanding. Imagine a dog’s view of us. To the dog, a person appears not as a mind, but as a force to be obeyed. From its perspective, human behaviour is arbitrary: our actions are based on considerations that canine perception fails to grasp. It follows therefore that, should God exist, we would be incapable of recognising him or her as an intelligent being, since divine thought would encompass a totality of factors too complex for us to comprehend. Consequently, God would appear as a force of chaos, and therefore scarcely the entity that we would like to see governing the outcome of a football match, let alone a war. A being of that kind would exist beyond the limits of human perception. And that in turn prompts the question as to whether the meta- being God would be capable of perceiving intelligence on the sub- level of the human. Maybe we are an experiment in a petridish after all . . .”

Have you read ‘The Swarm‘? What do you think about it?

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I’ve wanted to read a Robert Walser book for a while now. I decided to read this one, ‘The Assistant‘, for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

Joseph lands up one day morning at the office of the inventor Tobler. Joseph is hired to work as Tobler’s assistant and handle correspondence and enquires and other things that assistants do. Tobler’s wife and children are also there in that big villa. Joseph is from a poor background and he enjoys this new lifestyle. His employer and his family are pleasant to him and his workdays are comfortable. What happens during the course of the next year, when Tobler’s business starts with a lot of promise and bright future dreams and ends in near ruin and what experiences Joseph has when he is a part of it, is told in the rest of the story.

I liked ‘The Assistant‘, but I didn’t love it. The story is interesting and it shows how being an inventor is a perilous life and how things can sink or swim in a short span of time. Robert Walser’s descriptions and observations on nature (and sometimes Joseph’s dreams and fantasies of nature) are a pleasure to read. I highlighted many beautiful passages.

I’m glad I read my first Robert Walser. I am a little disappointed though – I was almost expecting a Thomas Mann style observation on life, but I didn’t get that. What I got was Walser’s observations on life. The book has an interesting afterword by the translator Susan Bernofsky which is very insightful to read.

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

“The depths have no shape, and there is no eye that can see what they are depicting. They are singing as well, but in notes no ear can catch. They reach out their long moist hands, but there is no hand able to grasp them. They rear up on either side of the nocturnal boat, but no knowledge in any way present knows this. No eye is looking into the eye of the depths. The water disappears, the glassy abyss opens up, and the boat now appears to be drifting along, peaceful and melodious and safe, beneath the surface of the water.”

“Such a slender and delicate script already hinted at great wealth. Nearly all capitalists wrote just like this man: with precision and at the same time somewhat offhandedly. This script was the handwritten equivalent of an elegant easy bearing, an imperceptible nod of the head, a tranquil expressive hand motion. It was so long-stemmed, this writing, it exuded a certain coldness, certainly the person who wrote like this was the opposite of a hot-blooded fellow. These few words: concise and courteous in their style. The politeness and succinctness extended even to the intimate format of his blindingly white letter paper.”

“How true it is that each of the four seasons has its own particular scent and sound. When you see spring, you always think you’ve never seen it like this before, never looking so special. In summer, the summery profusion strikes you as new and magical year after year. You never really looked at fall properly before, not until this year, and when winter arrives, the winter too is utterly new, quite quite different from a year or three ago. Indeed, even the years have their own individual personalities and aromas. Having spent the year in such and such a place means having experienced and seen it. Places and years are intimately linked, and what about events and years? Since experiences can color an entire decade, how much more powerfully and swiftly they can color a short year. A short year?”

“And the world, was it changing? No. A wintry image could superimpose itself upon the world of summer, winter could give way to spring, but the face of the earth remained the same. It put on masks and took them off again, it wrinkled and cleared its huge, beautiful brow, it smiled or looked angry, but remained always the same. It was a great lover of make-up, it painted its face now more brightly, now in paler hues, now it was glowing, now pallid, never quite what it had been before, constantly it was changing a little, and yet remained always vividly and restlessly the same. It sent lighting bolts flashing from its eyes and rumbled the thunder with its powerful lungs, it wept the rain down in streams and let the clean, glittering snow come smiling from its lips, but in the features and lineaments of its face, little change could be discerned. Only on rare occasions might a shuddering earthquake, a pelting of hail, a deluge or volcanic flare disturb its placid surface, or else it quaked or shuddered inwardly with worldly sentiments and earthly convulsions, but still it remained the same. Regions remained the same; skylines, to be sure, were always waxing and expanding, but a city could never fly off and find somewhere else to live from one hour to the next. Streams and rivers followed the same courses as they had for millennia, they might peter out in the sand, but they couldn’t suddenly leap from their beds into the light open air. Water had to work its way through canals and caves. Streaming and burrowing was its age-old law. And the lakes lay where they had lain for a long, long time. They didn’t leap up toward the sun or play ball like children. Sometimes they became indignant and slapped their water in waves together with a great whooshing noise, but they could transform themselves neither into clouds one day nor wild horses one night. Everything in and upon the earth was subject to beautiful, rigorous laws, just like human beings.”

Have you read ‘The Assistant‘? What do you think about it?

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I loved Austrian writer Robert Seethaler’s first novel ‘A Whole Life. I decided to read his next book ‘The Tobacconist‘ for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

Franz lives with his mother in a small village in the middle of the mountains. Franz is seventeen years old. It is the 1930s. One day his family’s benefactor dies. Franz’ mother decides to send him to Vienna to an old’s friend’s place to work. This old friend is a tobacconist called Otto Trsnyek. Franz goes to work there as an apprentice. The tobacconist teaches him the finer points of the business and also tells him that most of the time he has to just keep quiet, read the newspaper and keep himself abreast of worldly affairs, and pay attention and learn when a customer arrives. All kinds of customers visit the shop. One day an elderly gentleman visits the shop. The tobacconist gets up with respect and calls him ‘Professor’. In the Vienna of that time, there can be only one Professor, of course. It is our famous Sigmund Freud. Soon a beautiful friendship develops between Franz and Freud. What happens after this, the experiences that Franz has as he grows up from a teenager into a young man, what impact Freud has on Franz’ life, and how the great historical events of the time impact individuals’ lives is told in the rest of the story.

I loved the different relationships depicted in the story – between Franz and his mother, between Franz and Otto Trsnyek the tobacconist, the warm friendship between Franz and Freud and the beautiful relationship between Franz and a young woman called Anezka. I loved all the main characters. One of my favourite scenes in the story was at the beginning when Otto Trsnyek inducts Franz into the life of a tobacconist and describes to him the importance of reading newspapers and the magic of cigars. I also loved the conversations between Franz and Freud. Freud comes through as a cool person with a wonderful sense of humour, which is not at all how I imagined him. The way in which the historical events of the time impacted normal people, and how some of them resisted the bad things that happened is beautifully depicted in the book.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Tobacconist‘. There is one more book of Seethaler which is available in English translation. I want to read that now.

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

Franz : “Where I come from, people might understand a bit about the timber industry and how to get summer visitors to part with their money. They don’t understand the first thing about love.”
Freud : “That’s not unusual. Nobody understands anything about love.”
Franz : “Not even you?”
Freud : “Especially not me!”
Franz : “But why is everybody always falling in love all over the place, then?”
Freud : “Young man, you don’t have to understand water in order to jump in head first.”

“The professor swallowed. ‘A Hoyo de Monterrey,’ he said, huskily. Franz nodded. ‘Harvested by brave men on the sunny, fertile banks of the San Juan y Martínez River and tenderly hand-rolled by their beautiful women.’ Freud gently palpated the cigar along its entire length and squeezed it lightly between thumb and forefinger. ‘An aromatic habano that is light in taste, yet persuades through great elegance and complexity,’ said Franz, with a naturalness that gave no hint of the many painstaking hours it had cost him to learn the descriptions on the cigar box by heart. He took a silver-plated cigar cutter from the pocket of his trousers and handed it to the professor. ‘A habano should be cut precisely on the line — here, where cap and wrapper join.’ Freud cut off the end and lit the Hoyo with a match as long as his finger. In doing so he held the flame about a centimetre away from the tip and drew on the cigar until the flame reached it. Then he turned it slowly between his fingers and blew softly on the embers. He leaned back with a faint smile and gazed at the bluish smoke curling up and away in the clear winter air.”

“Sometimes a quiet rustling reached him from the shop. Mice, perhaps, thought Franz, or rats. Or the events of the previous day, already turned into memories and rustling out of the newspapers. It’s pretty odd, actually, he thought, the way the newspapers trumpet all their truths in big fat letters only to write them small again in the next edition, or contradict them. The morning edition’s truth is practically the evening edition’s lie; though as far as memory’s concerned it doesn’t really make much difference. Because it’s not usually the truth that people remember; it’s just whatever’s yelled loudly enough or printed big enough. And eventually, thought Franz, when one of these rustlings of memory has lasted long enough, it becomes history.”

“Those who knew nothing had no worries, thought Franz, but if it was hard enough painstakingly to acquire knowledge, it was even harder, if not practically impossible, to forget what you had once known.”

“…it’s not actually our destiny to know the paths. Our destiny is precisely not to know them. We don’t come into this world to find answers, but to ask questions. We grope around, as it were, in perpetual darkness, and it’s only if we’re very lucky that we sometimes see a little flicker of light. And only with a great deal of courage or persistence or stupidity — or, best of all, all three at once — can we make our mark here and there, indicate the way.”

Have you read ‘The Tobacconist‘? What do you think about it?

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I wanted to read a book by a Swiss author and so decided to read Martin Suter’sThe Last Weynfeldt‘. I read this for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

Adrian Weynfeldt is an art expert. He helps in writing art catalogues, valuing works of art, organizing art auctions. He is in his fifties. He is a man of simple, steady habits. One day, very surprisingly, he comes home with a beautiful woman. The next day morning, when he gets up, he discovers that the woman is standing at the balcony, ready to take the plunge. Adrian tries to talk her down. The strange sequence of events which arise from this and which flow rapidly takes us into the art world, the world of painters and paintings and art auctions and art forgeries.

The Last Weynfeldt‘ is kind of a thriller. A sleek one though. The start is spectacular and though the rest of the book can’t keep up with that, it is still interesting. There is a lot of information in the book about Swiss art and artists. There is also a lot of information about furniture designers and architects. One of the things I loved was the description of food. Martin Suter takes a lot of pleasure in writing about food. I made a list of things that I’d like to try. Especially ravioli ricotta with sage butter (have never tried sage butter), buckwheat blini (have tried blini and I love it, but I don’t think I’ve tried buckwheat blini), Birnbrot (pastry filled with dry pears – sounds wonderful!). The characters in the book are interesting – I especially liked Adrian, his housekeeper Frau Hauser who behaves like his mom, being affectionate and tough at the same time, his secretary Veronique, and the beautiful woman who tries jumping out of his balcony, Lorena. The story has a surprising fascinating ending, but I won’t tell you what 😊

I enjoyed reading ‘The Last Weynfeldt‘. I won’t call it my favourite thriller, but it was pleasant reading for a Sunday afternoon.

I’ll leave you with a couple of my favourite passages from the book.

“He believed that regularity prolonged life. There was also the opposing theory: regularity makes each day indistinguishable, and the more events and habits are repeated, the more the days resemble each other and the years too. Till your whole life feels like one single year. Weynfeldt didn’t believe this. If you do the same things more often, go to the same places and meet the same people, the differences become subtler each time. And if the differences are subtler then time passes unnoticed. Someone you see every month instead of every year never appears to age. And you never appear to age to them. Repetition slows down the passage of time. Weynfeldt was absolutely convinced of this. Change might make life more eventful, but it undoubtedly made it shorter too.”

“Adrian was waiting for Lorena to call, and waiting was not an activity for him; it was a state, not such an unpleasant one. Like flying. As soon as he boarded an airplane, he was placed in a state of absolute passivity. Of course he ate the food served him, and read a newspaper, or a book. But he was passive as far as flying itself was concerned. He knew there was nothing he could do to influence it and delegated it unconditionally to those who could.”

Have you read ‘The Last Weynfeldt‘? What do you think about it?

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