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Archive for the ‘German Literature Month’ Category

I wrote this as part of the celebrations for the tenth edition of German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’.

Marlen Haushofer is my favourite German author. She was Austrian and wrote in German. I first discovered her through Caroline’s (from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’) post about the film adaptation of ‘The Wall’. I got inspired and got the book, and when I read it, I didn’t want it to end. When I finished reading the book, it became my alltime favourite book, at that time. It is still one of my alltime favourite books. It is one of my treasured possessions and a book I refuse to lend to anyone. If you are curious about the plot, it goes like this. A forty-something old woman goes on a holiday with her cousin to the countryside. She goes to take a nap in their cabin. She wakes up to an eerie silence. She discovers that she has been separated by a transparent wall from the rest of the world and everyone on the other side is dead. She has a dog, a cat and a cow for company. This is revealed in the first few pages. What happens to this one human character and three animal characters is revealed in the next 250 pages. We would think that with just one human character, the story would have nowhere to go, but what Haushofer does with this minimalist cast is absolutely magical. I’ll let you read for yourself and find out what happened. After I read ‘The Wall‘, I wanted to read all of Haushofer’s books. But there were just two more of her books available in English translation – ‘The Loft‘ and ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘. I got them and read them across the years. One would except that after reading a profound book like ‘The Wall‘ one would almost experience a sophomore slump while reading the next Haushofer book, but when I read ‘The Loft‘, I found it beautiful in its own way and it had one of my favourite lines, which goes like this –

“I hate that alarm…I am convinced this wretched thing is slowly killing us – a fraction every day. Merely waiting for it to start ringing is in itself a torment…Before the day can slip noiselessly into the room it is shattered to pieces by this vulgar rattling noise.”

I kept ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘ aside for a long time, because I didn’t want to read my last Haushofer book in a hurry. Sometime back I felt that I had waited for too long and I read that too. It is a beautiful coming-of-age story and one of my favourite coming-of-age stories. If I hadn’t read ‘The Wall‘ before, ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘ would have been my favourite Haushofer book. It still is one of my alltime favourite books.

I don’t know much about Marlen Haushofer. Information about her is hard to come by on the internet. The Wikipedia page in English devoted to her has just the basic facts about her. She must have been well-known in her time in the German-speaking world or in Austria atleast, but after her death in 1970, she seems to have slipped into obscurity. She came again into prominence and burned brightly like star, briefly, a few years back when ‘The Wall‘ was adapted into a film which won lots of acclaim. Since then she has slipped back into obscurity again. I know only a few people who have read ‘The Wall‘ and half of them are friends to whom I recommended it to. ‘The Wall‘ is one of the great masterpieces of twentieth century literature. It deserves more readers.

Though we don’t know much about Marlen Haushofer, she reveals herself through her books. Atleast, I think so. If we try peeking behind the beautiful sentences, we find someone who is warm and affectionate, introverted, and who loves animals. How can someone who wrote this –

“The laurel is flowering. I don’t pick any because I’m afraid the plant might cry out in pain and I wouldn’t hear it. True, I don’t remember ever hearing laurel cry out, but everything is possible, and every sound is possible to a person who cannot hear.” (From ‘The Loft‘)

or this –

“That summer I quite forgot that Lynx was a dog and I was a human being. I knew it, but it had lost any distinctive meaning. Lynx too had changed. Since I’d been spending so much time with him he had grown calmer, and didn’t seem constantly afraid that I might vanish into thin air as soon as he went off for five minutes. Thinking about it today, I believe that was the only big fear in his dog’s life, being abandoned on his own. I too had learned a lot more, and understood almost all his movements and noises. Now, at last, there was a silent understanding between us.” (From ‘The Wall‘)

be anything but warm and affectionate, and a beautiful soul?

I am glad that Marlen Haushofer walked on earth once upon a time. I am glad that she was a beautiful soul. I am so happy that she wrote these beautiful, exquisite masterpieces. I wish our times had overlapped. I would have loved to meet her. But I am glad that she lives through her books. As they say about Beethoven and Mozart, that they didn’t die, but they became music, Marlen Haushofer didn’t die, she became her stories.

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German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life every November is one of my favourite reading events of the year. This year we are celebrating the 10th edition. I was looking forward to reading lots of German literature this month. But things didn’t go according to plan. I tried reading slowly, then I tried forcing myself to read, but it didn’t work. Three weeks of the month have already gone, and I’ve read a few pages from multiple books. This is not how I expected the 10th anniversary celebrations to go. I am disappointed with myself. But I’m not giving up. I have participated in every edition of German Literature Month and I am not going to miss it this time. I decided to participate in a different way this year.

I thought as my first post this year, I’ll write about my favourite German poems. I haven’t read a lot of German poems, and I don’t know many readers who have read German poems. But I’ve read some, and I’ve loved them. I’m sharing some of my favourites below.

Hermann Hesse

One of my friends gifted me this poetry collection by Hermann Hesse. I love Hesse’s novels and he is one of my favourite writers, but I didn’t know that he wrote poetry. I was pleasantly surprised when I read this book and I loved it.

These lines from one of the poems, make me remember my mother, and always make me cry.

“But the mild night,
That bows with its gentle clouds above me,
Has my mother’s face,
Kisses me, smiling, with inexhaustible love,
Shakes her head dreamily
As she used to do, and her hair
Waves through the world, and within it
The thousand stars, shuddering, turn pale.”

These lines are very poignant.

“And one day you will know
That the sweet breath of this life,
The precious possession of the heartbeat,
Is only a loan”

These lines are thought-provoking.

“And that for every hair on your head
Somebody endured one struggle, one pain, one death.”

And these lines are beautiful and insightful.

“But sleep has turned into a frightened bird,
Difficult to catch, to hold, yet easy to kill;”

Clearly, Hesse is as wonderful a poet, as he is a novelist.

Nelly Sachs

Nelly Sachs is nearly forgotten today. No one knows her. No one remembers her. Except for a few fans like me. This was how she lived most of her life. No one knew her. She was an obscure German poet, who lived in Sweden. Then for a brief period she shone brightly like a star, when she won the Nobel Prize for literature, and then she was promptly forgotten again. I discovered her by accident, and when I saw her photo it was love at first sight – it was like looking at a photo of my mother or my favourite aunt or my favourite teacher. I didn’t care how good her poetry was, I just loved her. Then I read about her and the difficult times she went through and I loved her even more. Then I read her poetry and it was so moving and heartbreaking that I cried.

Many of her poems are about the Holocaust, some of them are about the butterfly and metamorphosis and many of them have an underlying Jewish theme. I’m sharing one of my favourite poems of hers, here. It is beautiful and heartbreaking.

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?

Georg Trakl

I discovered Georg Trakl’s poetry through Melissa’s (from ‘The Book Binder’s Daughter’) post on it. Then I got his collection ‘Sebastian Dreaming‘ and have been dipping into it ever since.

Trakl was an Austrian poet. He died very young, when he was 27, at the beginning of the First World War, and left behind a slim collection of poetry, most of which has been translated into English only recently. One of my favourite poems from this collection is this one. It paints a beautiful picture of autumn.

Landscape

September evening; the dark calls of the shepherds echo mournfully
Through the darkening village; fire sprays inside the forge.
A black horse rears enormous; the hyacinthine curls of the country girl
Play for the ardour of his crimson nostrils.
The call of the doe quietly freezes at the edge of the forest
And the yellow flowers of autumn
Bend speechless over the blue face of the pond.
A tree bursts into red flames; the bats flutter upward with black faces.

Ingeborg Bachmann

I discovered Ingeborg Bachmann through Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’. (This is Ingeborg Bachmann week. Do check out Caroline’s beautiful tribute to Ingeborg Bachmann here.) Before long, dear Inge became one of my alltime favourite writers. I read most of Inge’s short stories and novellas and loved them all. She writes incredibly beautiful prose which is also intellectually demanding. There is a novel of hers, ‘Malina‘, which I haven’t read yet, and which I’ve kept aside for a rainy day. Inge, before she started writing stories, was a poet. She was an incredibly beautiful poet. I dip into her poetry collection once in a while, and read a poem or two. I don’t want to finish reading it. This is one of my favourite poems from her collection ‘Darkness Spoken‘. I think this is the complete collection of her poetry in English. It is sad that Inge left just a very slim literary output. I wish there was more. But what she has bestowed on us, is beautiful, incredibly beautiful.

No Delicacies

Nothing pleases me anymore.

Should I
fit out a metaphor
with an almond blossom?
crucify the syntax
upon an effect of light?
Who will rack their brains
over such superfluous things –

I have learned an insight
with words
that exist
(for the lowest class)

Hunger
Shame
Tears
and
Darkness.

With unpurged tears,
with despair
(and I despair in the face of despair)
about so much misery,
the sick pay, the cost of living,
I will get by.

I don’t neglect writing,
but rather myself.
The others are able
God knows
to get by with words.
I am not my assistant.

Should I
arrest an idea, lead it off
to a bright sentence cell?
feed sight and hearing
with first-class word morsels?
analyze the libido of a vowel,
estimate the collector’s value of our consonants?

Must I
battered by hail,
with the writing cramp in this hand,
under the pressure of the three hundredth night
rip up the paper,
sweep away the scribbled word operas,
annihilating as well : I you and he she it

we you all?

(Should? The others should.)

My part, it shall be lost.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I’ll sign off with one of my favourite German writers Goethe. I love Goethe’s novels. I started reading his masterpiece ‘Faust‘ this month and it is beautiful. These lines are from the early part of the book.

Mephistopheles’ dark humour made me smile 😊 What he says also seems to mirror the extraordinary situation of our world today.

The Lord :

“Why are you telling me all this again?
Do you always come here to complain?
Could there be something good on earth that you’ve forgotten?”

Mephistopheles :

“No, Lord! I’m pleased to say it’s still completely rotten.
I feel quite sorry for their miserable plight;
When it’s as bad as that, tormenting them’s not right.”

Have you read any of these poems? Do you like German poems? Which are some of your favourites?

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I discovered Erich Kästner through the book ‘The End of Loneliness‘, in which two of the characters watch a film adaptation of an Erich Kästner book. So I did some research and discovered that ‘Emil and the Detectives‘ is Erich Kästner’s most famous book. I read it in one breath today.

Emil lives with his mother in Neustadt. During the holidays, his mother sends him by train to Berlin to spend the holidays with his grandmother and aunt and her family. Emil’s mother gives him some money which she asks him to hand over to his grandmother. She asks him to be careful about the money. Emil’s fellow travellers in the train are quite friendly with him. At some point all of them get off the train except one. At some point Emil falls asleep. When he wakes up he realizes that the money is not there with him. He suspects the last traveller who was there with him in the compartment. Luckily, he sees that man get off the train at the next station and follows him. A lot of interesting things happen on the way as Emil makes new friends, plays detective with them and tries to catch the thief. Whether they are able to do that and get back the money is told in the rest of the story.

Emil and the Detectives‘ is a charming story. It is very engaging, fast-paced and filled with wonderful characters and events. I wish I had read it when I was a child. I would have loved it more. Reading it as a grown-up, one of the things I loved about the book was Emil’s impression of the big city when he first lands up in Berlin. Erich Kästner makes the Berlin of his time come alive through his descriptions as we see the exciting scenes of the big city through Emil’s eyes.

I loved this particular passage which contrasts the warmth and friendliness of a small town with the remoteness and aloofness of a big city.

“No one seemed interested, one way or the other. A strange man had paid his fare, but had gone on reading again without even asking why he had no money. Emil felt very small among them all, in that big, busy city. Nobody cared about his having no money, or that he didn’t know where he was going. There were four million people in Berlin at that moment, and not one of them cared what was happening to Emil Tischbein. No one has time for other people’s troubles in a city. They’ve all troubles enough of their own. They may listen for a moment, and perhaps say how sorry they are, but they are probably thinking, “Oh, for goodness’ sake, don’t bother me about it!” It was awful to feel so alone, and Emil wondered what would happen to him.”

I also loved this passage about the excitement and the awe and the surprise that a person from a small town feels when they first see a big city.

“It was getting dark, and the illuminated signs began to flash on and off. Trains thundered – by on the overhead railway. Other trains rumbled beneath them on the underground. The noise in the street of all the passing trams, buses, cars and motorbikes sounded to Emil like some crazy orchestra playing wildly. From a nearby café came the strains of dance music, and people were crowding into the cinemas round the square for the last performances. To Emil it was all strange and tremendously exciting. He almost forgot how he came to be there, and about the seven pounds which had been stolen.”

I enjoyed reading ‘Emil and the Detectives‘. I want to read more of Erich Kästner’s work. Have you read this book? What do you think about it?

I think this is my last book for this year’s German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. I made a modest plan this time around, but I couldn’t stick to it. I read only one of the planned books, tried participating in a readalong but could finish only one-third of that book, and then tried reading a thousand-page book but got stuck after a hundred pages. But the good news is that I managed to read four books and they were all different – one of them was classic literary fiction, another was contemporary literary fiction, one was YA, another was a children’s book. I loved all these four books. I feel sad that this year’s German Literature Month is already over, and I can’t wait for next year’s edition to arrive.

Did you participate in German Literature Month? What did you read?

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I was looking for a contemporary German book to read for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, when one of my friends recommended Benedict Wells‘ ‘The End of Loneliness‘. How can we resist a book with such a beautiful title? I started reading it a couple of days back and couldn’t put it down till I finished it.

The story told in ‘The End of Loneliness‘ goes like this. Jules is in the hospital after an accident. When he regains consciousness, he discovers that he has been in a coma for a couple of days. He looks back on his life, on the events and the people, which led him to his present situation in the hospital. We get a peek into his childhood, we get to know about his beautiful sister and his nerdy brother who are both elder to him, we get to know about his loving, affectionate parents. Then something suddenly happens, the beautiful tranquility is shattered and that is the end of life as he knows it. Jules is in a new situation now, and things are quiet for a while, and then beautiful things start happening. But then do beautiful, happy things last forever, or is the next disaster just around the corner? As the grown-up Jules says at one point –

“Life is not a zero-sum game. It owes us nothing, and things just happen the way they do. Sometimes they’re fair and everything makes sense; sometimes they’re so unfair we question everything. I pulled the mask off the face of Fate, and all I found beneath it was chance.”

Is this true? Is it all chance? Or do things even out and can we find happiness in the end?

Well, I can’t tell you more about the plot, or about any of the characters, or what happened, or how Jules ended up in the hospital. No spoilers here. You have to read the book to find out more.

The End of Loneliness‘ is a beautiful book about family, about brothers and sisters, about parents and children, about growing up, about friendship, about love. There is happiness and heartbreak in the book. There are beautiful sentences and passages. These are surprises. I loved all the characters in the book. Every one of them. Each one of them is beautifully sculpted, each one is beautiful, flawed, imperfect, amazing, real. Some of them speak beautiful lines. Some of them do beautiful things. Two of my favourites were Jules’ sister Liz and his best friend Alva. Liz speaks one of my favourite lines in the book –

“All these nihilists and cynics are really just cowards. They act as if everything’s meaningless because that means ultimately there’s nothing to lose. Their attitude seems unassailable and superior, but inside it’s worthless…The alternative to the concept of life and death is the void – would it really be better if this world didn’t exist at all? Instead, we live, make art, love, observe, suffer, laugh and are happy. We all exist in a million different ways so that there is no void, and the price we pay for that is death.”

In another part of the book, Liz says this –

“But there’s no point in living like that. Everything’s over so quickly and you can’t hold on to anything. All you can do is be.”

When we first meet Liz, we discover that she is a kind of party girl, but as we get to know her better, we discover that she has unsuspected depths and there is more to her than meets the eye.

Alva is amazing, of course. You have read the book though, to discover more about her. Also Marty, Jules’ nerdy brother, Toni, Jules’ and Marty’s friend, Elena, Marty’s wife, and many other characters, even the minor ones, they are all wonderful.

I loved ‘The End of Loneliness‘. It is one of my favourite reads of the year. I can’t wait to read more books by Benedict Wells.

Have you read ‘The End of Loneliness‘? What do you think about it?

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I was looking for a contemporary German book to read, for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. I was thinking about it when I discovered Wolfgang Herrndorf’sTschick‘. I got it and read the first page and then I couldn’t stop reading.

The story told in ‘Tschick‘ goes like this. Mike Klingenberg is fourteen years old and he is the narrator of the story. At the beginning of the story we find Mike in the hospital. There seem to be police with him too. We wonder why. Mike tells us what happened. Mike is a loner at school and doesn’t have many (or rather any) friends. The girl he likes, Tatiana, doesn’t know that he exists. Mike is good at some things – he is an ace high-jumper and a wonderful artist – but his talent is not noticed. A new boy called Tschick arrives in school one day. He seems to have a complex background and so everyone including Mike ignores him. At some point, something brings these two together and somehow they embark on a long road trip in an old stolen (or shall we say ‘borrowed’) car. What happens after that – the amazing adventures they have and the fascinating people they meet and how Mike ends up in the hospital and what happens after that – is narrated in the rest of the story.

I loved ‘Tschick‘. Mike is a wonderful narrator with an original, charming voice, a cool style, a wonderful sense of humour, and speaks his mind and doesn’t mince words. The pages flew because I loved the narrator’s voice. He made me remember all the great teenage / young narrators that I have encountered in some of my favourite novels, like ‘Treasure Island‘, ‘Kidnapped‘, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird‘, ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time‘, ‘Unhooking the Moon‘, ‘The Pull of Gravity‘, ‘The Fault in Our Stars‘. Tschick, after whom the novel is named, is a fascinating character, and is one of the two main characters alongwith Mike. Tschick is quiet, but once we get to know him, we discover that he is cool, wise, is filled with surprises and there is more to him than meets the eye. The Mike–Tschick friendship is one of the most charming friendships that I have encountered in any story. The book is very engaging and fast-paced and there is no word wasted. The ending is beautiful but I can’t tell you what happened – you have to read the book yourself and find out.

I loved ‘Tschick‘ so much that I wanted to read more books by Wolfgang Herrndorf. When I went and did some research, I discovered that this was his first book which he published when he was forty-five, and it was a runaway bestseller. But tragically, he was diagnosed with an incurable form of brain tumour by that time, and he wrote just one more book called ‘Sand‘ soon after that and died three years later. He just had a three-year literary career. He burned bright like a comet, lighted up millions of readers’ hearts, and was gone before they could blink. It was heartbreaking to read. Why do good people always die young?

A small observation on the title. The German title of the book is ‘Tschick‘. The title of the English translation is ‘Why We Took the Car‘. I hate this modern British practice of changing the title of translated works and trying to summarize the book through the title. So I am sticking to the German title here. I like it more.

Tschick‘ is one of my favourite books of the year. I am glad it was a bestseller and got many accolades – it deserved every bit of that. I can’t wait to read Wolfgang Herrndorf’s ‘Sand‘ now.

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

“It took two hours to reach the very top, but it was worth it. The view looked like a really great postcard. There was a giant wooden cross at the highest point, and below that a little cabin. The entire cabin was covered with carvings. We sat down there and read some of the letters and numbers cut into the wood: CKH 4/23/61, SONNY ’86, HARTMANN 1923. The oldest one we could find was: ANSELM WAIL 1903. Old letters cut into old, dark wood. And then the view and the warm summer air and the scent of hay wafting up from the valleys below. Tschick pulled out a pocketknife and started carving. As we talked and basked in the sun and watched Tschick carve, I kept thinking about the fact that in a hundred years we’d all be dead. Like Anselm Wail was dead. His family was all dead too. His parents were dead, his children were dead, everyone who ever knew him was dead. And if he ever made anything or built anything or left anything behind, it was probably dead as well — destroyed, blown away by two world wars — and the only thing left of Anselm Wail was his name carved in a piece of wood. Why had he carved it there? Maybe he’d been on a road trip, like us. Maybe he’d stolen a car or a carriage or a horse or whatever they had back then and rode around having fun. But whatever it was, it would never again be of interest to anyone because there was nothing left of his fun, of his life, of anything. The only people who would ever know anything at all about Anselm Wail were the people who climbed this mountain. And the same thing would be true of us.”

“I want to talk to my lawyer. That’s the sentence I probably need to say. It’s the right sentence in the right situation, as everybody knows from watching TV. And it’s easy to say: I want to talk to my lawyer. But they’d probably die laughing. Here’s the problem: I have no idea what this sentence means. If I say I want to talk to my lawyer and they ask me, “Who do you want to talk to? Your lawyer?” what am I supposed to answer? I’ve never seen a lawyer in my life, and I don’t even know what I need one for. I don’t know if there’s a difference between a lawyer and an attorney. Or an attorney general. I guess they’re like judges except on my side. I guess they know a lot more about the law than I do. But I guess pretty much everyone in the room knows more about the law than I do. First and foremost the policemen. And I could ask them.”

“It’s a little like those mafia movies, when there’s a long silence before one gangster answers another, and they just stare at each other. “Hey!” A minute of silence. “Look me in the eyes!” Five minutes of silence. In regular life that would be stupid. But when you’re in the mafia, it’s not.”

Have you read ‘Tschick‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Alfred Döblin’sBerlin Alexanderplatz‘ for a long time, and when I discovered that there will be a readalong hosted by Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’, as part of German Literature Month, I was excited! This is the first of the readalong posts in question-and-answer and covers the first two chapters of the book.

Welcome to the #germanlitmonth readalong of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. What enticed you to readalong with us?

I have always wanted to read ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’. When I discovered that there was going to be a readalong during GLM, I couldn’t resist joining.

Summarise your initial expectations. Are they being met?

I didn’t really have many expectations. I was thinking it might be a bit heavy and hard to read. On actual reading, it seems to be not as heavy as I expected, but there seems to be a kind of ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style thing in it. I am not able to articulate better, but this style makes the reading more challenging.

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading? If you’re reading the original German, is there anything noteworthy about Döblin’s language?

I am reading the Michael Hoffman translation. I found it very interesting, because I was expecting long sentences and deep thoughts, but the sentences were short with descriptions and they moved the plot. In some ways, very un-German 😁

What are your first impressions of Berlin and Franz Biberkopf?

Very interesting. From the kind of themes covered in the initial two chapters, the book must have been ahead of its times and probably controversial too. Franz Biberkopf seems to be an interesting character, sometimes happy-go-lucky, sometimes complex.

Döblin’s original title was “Berlin Alexanderplatz” He added “The Story of Franz Biberkopf” at the publisher’s insistence. Why do you think the publisher intervened in this way? How does this duality of focus manifest itself in the structure of chapter 2?

I didn’t know this. Very interesting! Maybe it is the story of both Berlin and Alexanderplatz and Franz Biberkopf, and how they all evolved and changed during this period.

Do you any have any further observations or questions you’ll be looking to answer at a later stage?

Looking forward to finding out what Franz is upto.

Are you participating in the ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz‘ readalong?

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I discovered Max Frisch’sAn Answer from the Silence‘ while browsing in the bookshop. I am happy and excited that in these days when we discover most books through the internet, it is still possible to visit the bookshop, spend sometime browsing, and discover a beautiful book. This is the first book I read for this year’s German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

The story told in Max Frisch’s book goes like this. The main character, whose name we don’t know, is staying in an inn near the mountains. He is thirty years old. He is passing through and he is trying to climb one of the nearby cliffs. We learn that he feels that he hasn’t accomplished much, has drifted from one dream to another, and finally decided that he is going to attempt climbing a cliff which no one has ever done before, and if he succeeds, he feels he would have accomplished something and not just lived a regular, mundane life. And then he meets a woman at the inn. And they begin a wonderful conversation. What happens after that and how their friendship evolves and whether this man climbs the cliff and finds the meaning of life is told in the rest of the story.

An Answer from the Silence‘ is a slim book at around a hundred pages. It is also a beautiful book. It is one of the great introvert novels like Marlen Haushofer’sThe Wall‘, Alexis M.Smith’sGlaciers‘, Robert Seethaler’sA Whole Life‘, Peter Stamm’sUnformed Landscape‘, Muriel Barbery’sThe Elegance of the Hedgehog‘ and Rabih Alameddine’sAn Unnecessary Woman‘, in which the main character lives a rich inner life and contemplates on some deep questions. It is the kind of book I love. There are so many beautiful passages in Frisch’s book that I couldn’t stop highlighting. The character of Irene, the woman who starts a conversation with our mountain-climbing main character, is so beautifully depicted, and she was my favourite character in the book. Max Frisch’s prose is beautiful and flows serenely like a river. There are beautiful descriptions of the mountains and nature. One of my favourite descriptions went like this :

“Outside there is no light visible that has been lit by human hand. There are just the stars glittering above the mountains and it’s bright, so that you can even see the blades of grass on the ground nearby, almost as bright as day, though it’s a different gleam, a lifeless gleam pouring over things, dull and without shadow, very strange, as if one were on another planet where there’s no life, on a planet which, with all its rocks and ice, is not made for man, however indescribably beautiful it may be.”

The book also asks some deep, profound questions on life which are relevant even today. This book came out in 1937, during the time when Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann were still active, and so it is not surprising that it asks some profound questions. I haven’t read a Max Frisch book before and I am surprised that he is not that well known today, because this book is really good, as good as the best ones of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. Frisch seems to have led an interesting life too – he was a writer and journalist, but couldn’t pay his bills, and so went and studied architecture and became an architect, and while he was in the army during the Second World War, he started writing again and he continued his successful architecture practice alongwith his writing after the war. It seems he was also in a relationship with my favourite, Ingeborg Bachmann. I want to read more about him and I want to read more of his books.

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

“It’s just like a relay race, he laughs, a relay race with no finishing tape; they hand life over to us and say, ‘Go on now, run with it, for twenty or seventy years.’ And you run, you don’t look at what you have in your hand, you just run and hand it on. And what, he says, if one of us asks what the aim of it is? You could be nasty and grab one of them by the sleeve and take him to one side and when he opens his hand – nothing. And that’s what we’re running for, one generation after another? It’s nothing but a circus, round and round in a circle…”

“Why do we not follow our longing? Why is it? Why do we bind and gag it everyday, when we know that it’s truer and finer than all the things that are stopping us, the things people call morality and virtue and fidelity and which are not life, simply not life, not a life that’s true, great, worth living! Why don’t we shake them off? Why don’t we live when we know we’re here just this one time, just one single, unrepeatable time in this unutterably magnificent world?”

Have you read Max Frisch’sAn Answer from the Silence‘? What do you think about it?

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November is the time for one of my favourite reading events of the year – German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. I have been participating in it since the first edition, and it is an exciting time of the year for me, because I have discovered so many wonderful German and Germanic authors through this event.

The exciting part of any bookish event is making a planned reading list. This is what my planned book stack looks like.

In the picture

(1) An Answer from the Silence by Max Frisch – Frisch is a new author that I discovered through bookshop browsing. This book is slim, at around a 100 pages, Frisch is Swiss, and the story is set in the mountains – an irresistible combination.

(2) Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig – Stefan Zweig is one of my alltime favourite writers. I think I have read all his novellas and stories. This is the only novel he wrote. I was keeping it aside for a rainy day. I think that rainy day has arrived.

(3) Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler – I have wanted to read Koestler’s book ever since I read an excerpt from it. I can’t wait to get started.

(4) Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – I had planned to read Goethe’s classic many times. Maybe this is my lucky year.

(5) Before the Feast by Saša Stanišić – Stanisic won the German Book Prize this year. That novel has not been translated yet. So I thought I’ll read this one, which is one of his early books.

(6) Sebastian Dreaming by George Trakl – a short poetry collection that I have wanted to read for a while.

Not in the picture

(7) Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin – One of the great classics set in Weimar Germany. I am participating in the readalong hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.

This time I decided to make a slim reading list, because I have had a hectic reading time during the past three months, and so I wanted to take it easy this month and read slowly in a more relaxed way. I am hoping though that I can add a few more books to this list, if I finish reading these books earlier than anticipated.

I can’t wait to get started with my first book. Are you participating in German Literature Month? What are you reading?

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I read ‘A Long Blue Monday’ by Erhard von Büren for the readalong hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, as part of the celebrations for German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life .

Erhard von Büren is a Swiss writer. The last Swiss writer I read was Peter Stamm, I think, and the only other Swiss writer I have read is, probably, Pascal Mercier. So I was very excited and was looking forward to reading ‘A Long Blue Monday‘.

The story told in ‘A Long Blue Monday‘ is narrated by a retired school teacher. He used to teach English at school with a focus on American literature, and after retiring he is working on a book on Sherwood Anderson. The narrator starts the story from the present time and shares conversations with his daughter and talks about his own life now. He, then, slowly takes us back to his past, and tells us about his childhood, his parents, his sisters, his family, how they struggled when they were young, how hard the narrator had to work to get out of poverty, how he enjoyed life in smalltown Switzerland. The story then pauses at around the year 1959, when the narrator is in high school, when he falls in love for the first time. Her name is Claudia. The love story progresses slowly, it is beautiful and complicated, there is a gang of friends who hang out together each of whom have distinctive personalities (my favourite was Bede – he comes across as pretentious in the beginning, but I grew to like him as the story progressed). We get to know how young people lived their lives in the Switzerland of that time, what kind of conversations they had, what kind of parties they had, what their ideals were, what dreams they had and what they worried about, the difference between the upper classes and the others, how hard it was to move across class boundaries in real life but how easy it was to fall in love with someone on the other side – these and other things are beautifully depicted in this middle, biggest part of the book. In the last part of the book, the narrator describes how he moves out of his hometown, which friends he keeps in touch with and which ones he doesn’t and which ones he meets again years later, new people he meets, new lovers he has, how all his loves are all influenced deeply by his first love, and how he ends up being an English teacher (he says this in one place – “What’s strange is that I became a teacher, and stayed a teacher, although from early on I’d always preferred to study on my own. Just me and a book, no need for a teacher“) and how he ended up in his current situation. Throughout this interesting journey, the narrator shares his love for literature and films and we read a lot about Adalbert Stifter, Thornton Wilder, William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and many others and the film adaptations of their books. Those pages were a pleasure to read. I loved this nod to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel, ‘Goldfinger‘ – “Once doesn’t count, twice can be a coincidence, but now Katherine was caught.

A Long Blue Monday‘ is a nostalgic book. It looks back to the past and takes us on a beautiful journey. I liked it very much. I hope to read more books by Erhard von Büren. I discovered that there are atleast two more translated into English.

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

“An accidental meeting could only be made to happen with great difficulty.”

“Books and films were what showed me what true life was like. But what did true life have to do with my real life?”

“It was quite true, nearly everything my father did was wrong, and yet I was somehow fond of him. On the other hand, everything my mother did was always right, yet I never really managed to give her credit for it.”

“How easily I’d always memorised my part in plays, and how rapidly I’d also memorised what each of my opposite actors had to say. But this here was different. And I couldn’t do it.
I’d set out to do something I couldn’t do, something for which I had not the slightest talent. All the dialogues I’d ever heard or read, the dialogues I’d learned by heart, were of no use to me now. Writing a play was something different, something entirely different from learning a role and then performing on stage. That someone like myself should aspire to write a play was nothing but a bad joke.
And yet I had to do it.
If I only kept on writing and writing and then deleting and deleting, something might yet come of it. But today I hadn’t written anything for hours, and all the drafts I’d written so far needed to be deleted too.
It had to be a trilogy, a trilogy of all things! If not a work of intelligence it should at least be long, gigantic – sublimely ridiculous, for all I cared. Claudia, if anyone at all, would be the only person to read it. I had to prove something to Claudia, and to no one else. I’d got myself into this situation. I was right in the middle of it. Now I had to find a way out.
So I remained seated at my table beneath the lamp.
And then I found something to continue with.
Some sentence or other, and I typed it into the machine. Considering that I’d waited a whole afternoon and evening, that sentence would do, at a pinch.
And a single sentence wasn’t the end of it, the flow went on, and continued for one, even two whole pages. The sudden feeling of relief was immense, ridiculously so.”

“If you want something for long enough you get it in the end. Spare no effort and it can be made to happen. That was the principle that guided my life. And on the same principle I hoped to win Claudia, her respect, her friendship, her confidence, whatever: all the things that were to be found in the books I read, or that were shown so strikingly in the films I saw. If Claudia was always in my thoughts, it was inconceivable that I shouldn’t also be in hers. All you had to do was hang on to your passion, and in the end your passion would be reciprocated!
I confused winning someone’s love with scrupulously doing one’s homework. I thought the strength of a sentiment guaranteed that it would be reciprocated, I thought that when it came to sentiment, too, everything was determined by merit.
Ludicrous! It might be possible to earn the odd act of kindness because a faint feeling of justice is aroused, so that what was given comes back. But twenty acts of kindness still don’t make a friendship, they can’t be exchanged for love. Love accounts don’t balance.
‘The pangs of desprized love …’ I should have known, I’d parodied Hamlet’s soliloquy often enough. And anyway, wasn’t being crossed in love the rule rather than the exception? It had been childish to imagine that an exception would be made in my case.”

“Those dialogues can surely be improved. It’s not important that the sentences follow each other in an orderly pattern, question, answer, question. What matters is that I should make some discovery in the process. The sentences should lead me on to something I didn’t know beforehand, they should show me something I hadn’t seen before. That’s what they’re there for, that’s why I’m writing them down, that’s why I’m stringing them together. They don’t have to be to my liking, they don’t have to be to anyone’s liking. All I’m trying to find out by writing them down is how a simple love story could turn into such a calamity.”

Have you read ‘A Long Blue Monday’ by Erhard von Büren? What do you think about it?

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This is the third book I have read for German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

After reading the novellas of Stefan Zweig, I was tempted to read the collected stories. So I picked this up and after some readathoning finished reading it yesterday.

Before I get into the stories in the book, there are a couple of things I want to say about Stefan Zweig. This book has ‘stories’ in the title. Most of us, readers, will instinctively and automatically add the adjective ‘short’ before that word, and believe that the book contains short stories. We will be surprised though when we open the book. There are a few real short stories in the book, which are around ten pages long. But those are few. Most of the stories in the book are somewhere between thirty and sixty pages long. And they are in small font. If we give allowance to font size, they would be much longer. They are too long to be called short stories and too short to be called novellas. They are neither here nor there. They defy classification. Publishers and bookshops will be confused on where to shelve this collection. I loved that aspect of this book. It looks like Stefan Zweig didn’t care what his stories were called. He refused to follow the artificially created rules and categories. He just wrote what he wanted and he wrote it as long as he wanted it to be. It is so cool.

The second thing I wanted to say about Stefan Zweig was this. If something can be said in five words, and that something comes to Stefan Zweig, he will say it in twenty words. In the hands of ordinary mortals this will look like an inefficient use of words which doesn’t serve any purpose, but in the hands of Stefan Zweig, it is beautiful – the beautiful sentences, metaphors, descriptions, insights into the human condition are a pleasure to read. We delve deep into those long, ornate, beautifully sculpted Zweig-ian sentences and we don’t want them to end. They are not like the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ long sentences of Virginia Woolf or William Faulkner or the long sentences of Marcel Proust or Bohumil Hrabal. Zweig’s sentences are different. They are unique in their own way and offer a lot of delight to readers. He doesn’t necessarily write long sentences always. But he takes more words to say something. It is interesting, because Zweig mostly wrote stories and novellas. He wrote just two novels. He was not a writer of epic-length books. Within the short length of the overall story or book, he wrote long sentences or used more words to say something. This combination of short and long seems to have produced sparks and created magic. It is fascinating.

This book has twenty two stories. I had read some of them before – Forgotten Dreams, A Story Told in Twilight, Moonbeam Alley, Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Invisible Collection, Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, Incident on Lake Geneva, The Debt Paid Late. The other stories were all new to me. I read all the new ones, and re-read most of the already read ones. Here is a short description of the stories in the book. These descriptions are inadequate, as each of the stories deserves a separate review of its own with a proper discussion of the story, characters and favourite passages. Unfortunately, that will make things too long.

Forgotten Dreams – A woman and a man, who were in love with each other once, meet after a long time. They remember their past together. This is the first story in the book and the shortest one.

In the Snow – A story of Jewish people suffering at the hand of Christians. Very heartbreaking.

The Miracles of Life – A novella length story about a painter who tries to paint a picture of the Madonna and a young Jewish woman who models for the picture. So beautiful and heartbreaking. Esther, the Jewish woman, is such a beautiful, haunting character.

The Star Above the Forest – What happens when a waiter falls in love with someone who is way above his social station, like a Countess? This story presents one of those scenarios. So beautiful and tragic.

A Summer Novella – An interesting love story which is told through a conversation between two strangers during summer.

The Governess – A story about two young girls who lose their innocence because of some happenings at home. When towards the end of the story, I read this – “They know all about it now. They know that they have been told lies, all human beings can be bad and despicable. They do not love their parents anymore, they do not believe in them. They know that they can never trust anyone, the whole monstrous weight of life will weigh down on their slender shoulders. They have been cast out of the cheerful comfort of their childhood, as if into an abyss…access to their minds has been cut off, perhaps for many years to come. Everyone around them feels that they are enemies, and determined enemies at that who will not easily forgive. For yesterday their childhood came to an end” – it broke my heart.

Twilight – A story of a woman who falls out of favour and is banished from the French court and what she does about it.

A Story Told in Twilight – A beautiful, sensual love story of two young people.

Wondrak – A story about a mother’s love for her son.

Compulsion – A story about a man who is asked by his country to go to war when he and his wife don’t want to, and what he decides and what happens to them. So beautiful and realistic and asks some profound questions.

Moonbeam Alley – I was so excited to read this, because this was the first Stefan Zweig story I ever read seven years back and this is the story which inspired me to read more of his stories. This time around, the story didn’t have the impact that it had the first time, but this story will always have a special place in my heart, because it introduced me to one of my favourite writers. It tells the story of a man who has an adventure in the night in one of the port towns.

Amok – The story of a doctor who is working in the tropics and a strange experience he has. I discovered the origin and meaning of the phrase ‘running amok‘ through this story. You can find Lisa’s (from ANZ LitLovers) review of the story here.

Fantastic Night – One of my favourite stories from the book and probably one of my favourite Zweig stories ever. It is about a man who has everything but is bored with life and how a series of accidental experiences happen to him one particular day and how that changes his life profoundly. It is a fascinating story, almost Russian, almost Dostoevskian, and offers an insightful, amazing commentary on the human condition. There is this beautiful passage at the beginning of the story in which the narrator talks about the challenges of writing. It goes like this :

“I have not a trace of what people call artistic talent, nor any literary experience, and apart from a few rather light-hearted squibs for ‘The Theresianum‘ I have never tried to write anything. I don’t even know, for instance, if there is some special technique to be learnt for arranging the sequence of outward events and their simultaneous inner reflection in order, and I wonder whether I am capable of always finding the right word for a certain meaning and the right meaning for a certain word, so as to achieve the equilibrium which I have always subconsciously felt in reading the work of every true storyteller.”

He continues with this :

“For the whole thing is really just a small episode. But even as I write this, I begin to realize how difficult it is for an amateur to choose words of the right significance when he is writing, and what ambiguity, what possibilities of misunderstanding can attach to the simplest of terms. For if I describe the episode as small, of course I mean it only as relatively small, by comparison with those mighty dramatic events that sweep whole nations and human destinies along with them, and them again I mean it small in terms of time, since the whole sequence of events occupied no more than a bare six hours. To me, however, that experience – which in the general sense was minor, insignificant, unimportant – meant so extraordinarily much that even today, four months after that fantastic night, I still burn with the memory of it, and must exert all my intellectual powers to keep it to myself.”

Later he says this, in this almost Dostoevskian passage :

“With passionate ardour, I still relive what I experienced that day…But once more I feel I must pause, for yet again, and with some alarm, I become aware of the double-edged ambiguity of a single word. Only now that, for the first time, I am to tell a story in its full context do I understand the difficulty of expressing the ever-changing aspect of all that lives in concentrated form. I have just written ‘I’, and said that I took a cab at noon on the 7th of June, 1913. But the word is not really straightforward, for I am by no means still the ‘I’ of that time, that 7th of June, although only four months have passed since that day, although I live in the apartment of that former ‘I’ and write at his desk, with his pen, and with his own hand. I am quite distinct from the man I was then, because of this experience of mine, I see him now from the outside, looking coolly at a stranger, and I can describe him like a playmate, a comrade, a friend whom I know well and whose essential nature I also know but I am not that man any longer. I could speak of him, blame or condemn him, without any sense that he was once a part of me.”

Letter from an Unknown Woman – A writer receives a letter from an unknown woman. The letter describes how she knows him. Very fascinating.

The Invisible Collection – The story of a provincial man with an amazing art collection. You have to read the story to find out why it is invisible. You can read Jonathan’s (from Intermittencies of the Mind) review of the story here.

Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman – Self explanatory title. Describes the strange happenings in life of that woman. One of my favourite Zweig novellas. You can find my longer review of the story here. You can find Lisa’s (from ANZ LitLovers) review of the story here. You can find Melissa’s (from The Book Binder’s Daughter) review of the story here. You can find Brontë’s Page Turners’ review of the story here.

Downfall of the Heart – A beautiful study of family life and the relationship between parents and children. Very heartbreaking too.

Incident on Lake Geneva – A beautiful sad story and also a commentary on artificial borders created by humans. There is this beautiful dialogue towards the end of the story, which is heartbreaking.

Manager : “What do you want, Boris?”
Boris : “Forgive me, I only wanted…I wanted to know if I can go home.”
Manager : “Of course, Boris, to be sure you can go home.”
Boris : “Tomorrow?”
Manager : “No Boris…not just yet. Not until the war is over.”
Boris : “When is that? When will the war be over?”
Manager : “God only knows. We humans don’t.”
Boris : “But before that? Can’t I go before that?”
Manager : “No, Boris.”
Boris : “Is it so far to go?”
Manager : “Yes.”
Boris : “Many more days’ journey?”
Manager : “Many more days.”
Boris : “I go all the same, sir. I’m strong. I don’t tire easily.”
Manager : “But you can’t, Boris. There’s a border between here and your home.”
Boris : “A border?” (He looked blank. The word was new to him. Then he said again with his extraordinary obstinacy) “I’ll swim over it.”
Manager : “No, Boris, that’s impossible. A border means there’s a foreign country on the other side. People won’t let you through.”
Boris : “But I won’t hurt them! I threw my rifle away. Why wouldn’t they let me go back to my wife, if I ask them in Christ’s name?”
Manager : “No, they won’t let you through, Boris. People don’t take any notice of the word of Christ anymore.”
Boris : “But what am I to do, sir? I can’t stay here! The people that live here don’t understand me, and I don’t understand them.”
Manager : “You’ll soon learn, Boris.”
Boris : “No, sir. I can’t learn things. I can only work in the fields, that’s all I know how to do. What would I do here? I want to go home! Show me the way!”
Manager : “There isn’t any way at the moment, Boris.”
Boris : “But sir, they can’t forbid me to go home to my wife and my children! I’m not a soldier anymore.”
Manager : “Oh yes, they can, Boris.”
Boris : “What about the Tsar?”
Manager : “There’s no Tsar any more, Boris. He’s been deposed.”
Boris : “No Tsar anymore?” (He stared dully at the other man, the last glimmer of light went out in his eyes…)

Mendel the Bibliophile – About a bibliophile called Mendel. He almost seemed to resemble the way I am, some days. One of my favourite stories from the book. You can find Jonathan’s (from Intermittencies of the Mind) review of the story here.

Leporella – A story about a cook and her relationship with her employers.

Did He Do It? – A beautiful, heartbreaking story about a dog and his human masters. The dog is not the good person here.

The Debt Paid Late – The story of a woman, who accidentally bumps into her favourite actor which makes her reminisce her past. I had read this story before and it has preserved its magic when I read it again. Beautiful story.

I loved all the stories in the book. Each was beautiful in its own way. But one story which leapt up above all else is ‘Fantastic Night‘. It was incredibly beautiful and touched me deeply and pulled so many heartstrings. That is a story I want to read again soon, slowly, savouring each word.

So, that’s it. I think I have read all Stefan Zweig’s stories which are out there in print. There are two novels of his that I have to read still – ‘Beware of Pity‘ and ‘The Post Office Girl‘. I hope to read them sometime. It is a bittersweet moment, because there are no new Stefan Zweig stories left. But I am glad he wrote these beautiful stories which continue to delight readers, decades after they were first published. Stefan Zweig is one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century who is virtually unknown today. I wish more readers discover his works and delight in the pleasures they offer.

Have you read ‘The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Stefan Zweig story?

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