Posts Tagged ‘20th Century Austrian Literature’

This is my third and final post for this year’s German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.


I think I first heard of Stefan Zweig through a comment made by Peter Hall in his book ‘Cities in Civilization‘, in which Hall talks about Vienna and its culture and architecture and mentions Stefan Zweig’s thoughts on Viennese culture at the beginning of the 20th century. I still can’t believe that I remember that, but happily I do. Later, I read one of Zweig’s short stories in an anthology. I then got his book ‘The World of Yesterday‘ and read the first fifty pages and loved it, but got distracted and kept it aside for a rainy day. I thought that I will get back to it one day and also read other Stefan Zweig books. I have still not got back to that book, but I discovered this story collection ‘A Game of Chess and other stories‘ and so I thought I will read this first.


A Game of Chess and other stories‘ has four stories – two of them are short stories and two of them are novellas. The first story ‘The Invisible Collection‘ is about an art dealer who goes to visit a longtime client. He has never met this client, but has been impressed by this client’s wisdom because he has collected little known pieces of art across the years which have gone on to become extremely valuable. Of course, when he actually meets that client, he ends up in an unusual situation. I can’t tell you more – you should read the story.

The second story is a novella called ‘Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life‘. In this story, a few people are holidaying in the Riviera. They don’t know each other originally, but get to know each other because they are staying in the same guesthouse. They have interesting cultural and intellectual conversations everyday and some of them even play tennis. At one point the wife of one person elopes with one of the guests. Most of the people are critical of the woman and call her irresponsible. But the narrator of the story takes her side and says that given the right circumstances, anyone can break the prevailing social rules and fall in love or get attracted to a stranger. This leads to a lot of heated debate. Then one of the older women takes aside the narrator, asks to speak with him privately and tells him the story of what happened one day in her life many years back. The forms the major part of the story.

The third story, ‘Incident on Lake Geneva‘ is about a stranger who ends up in the shores of Lake Geneva and the people of the town don’t know what to do with him as he speaks a strange language and it is war time. Who he is and what happens to him form the rest of the story.

The fourth story, a novella, is the title story ‘A Game of Chess‘. A ship is leaving New York for Buenos Aires. It has the World Chess Champion Mirko Czentovic in it. Our narrator wants to engage the champion Czentovic in some way. But Czentovic avoids people. The narrator tries to catch his attention by engaging in a game of chess with a fellow traveller. The trick works. Czentovic agrees to join them next day for a game or two. And he easily defeats them. But the story doesn’t end there. One of the spectators joins the amateur players against Czentovic. He is able to see the World Champion’s tactics and strategy many moves in advance and gives the right kind of advice. Before long, the amateurs are able to hold their own against the World Champion. Czentovic is impressed and calls for a game next day with this mysterious traveller. Meanwhile our narrator goes to meet this mysterious traveller and this mysterious chess genius tells the story of how he got so good at the game.

I loved all the stories in the book, but I loved the novellas a little bit more. I can’t decide which is my favourite story, because I liked both ‘A Game of Chess‘ and ‘Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life’ equally well. All the stories had beautiful passages that I liked very much. Most of them had an interesting structure – a narrator starts to tell us the story and this narrator meets another person who takes over and tells us the rest of the story, the important part of the story. This is how stories used to be written once upon a time, in which the original narrator doesn’t play an important part in the story. It made me smile. There is a description of the Riviera in ‘Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life‘ which is incredibly beautiful which I loved. ‘A Game of Chess‘ has been called the best chess story ever written. I don’t know about that, but it definitely had one of the most beautiful passages on chess that I have ever read.

Here are some of my favourite passages from the book.

From ‘Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life’

Most people have little imagination, and what does not impinge on them directly, or run a sharp wedge insistently into a sensitive spot, generally fails to arouse them. On the other hand, something quite minor can put them in a towering passion if it happens right before their eyes or touches off their most immediate feelings. So, in a sense, the rarity of their emotional involvement is offset by the unwarranted and excessive vehemence they show in such instances.

You know the Riviera landscape. It’s always fine, but it offers its rich hues complacently and with picture-postcard flatness to the eye, rather like a sleepy, languid beauty who is content to be touched by every gaze, almost oriental in her ever-luxuriant display. But sometimes, very seldom, there are days when this beauty rises up with a purpose and cries out for attention, sparkling with madly garish colours and flinging her myriad blooms triumphantly in one’s face, her sensuality burning bright. And just such an effervescent day had dawned after the stormy chaos of the night. The rain-washed street gleamed white, the sky was turquoise and on all sides lush bushes catching the light flamed like green torches. The mountains seemed nearer and more distinct in the crisp, sunny sky, pressing forward inquisitively on the glittering, brightly polished town.

From ‘A Game of Chess

But are we not guilty of belittling chess by calling it a game at all? For surely it is also a science and an art, poised between these categories like Muhammad’s coffin between heaven and earth, a unique fusion of all opposing pairs : ancient yet eternally new, mechanical in its arrangement yet requiring imagination for its effect, limited to a fixed geometrical space yet limitless in its permutations, forever evolving yet sterile, a thought process without purpose, a mathematics that solves nothing, an art form with no artworks, an architecture without materials, and nevertheless demonstrably more enduring in its essence and being than any book or artefact. It is the only game that belongs to all nations and all eras, and no one knows which divinity brought it into the world to stave off boredom, sharpen wits and firm up the spirit. Where is its beginning and where its end? Any child can learn its basic rules, any bungler can try his hand at it, and yet from within its small, unvarying square field it brings forth an extraordinary and incomparable species of virtuoso, people whose peculiar gifts make chess their only possible vocation. In this type of genius, vision, patience and technique operate in the same proportions as with mathematicians, poets and composers – only these elements are differently layered and combined.

I don’t think I have done justice to this beautiful book in my review. ‘A Game of Chess and other stories‘ is one of my favourite books of the year. I will definitely be reading it again. I can’t wait to read more Stefan Zweig.

Other reviews

The Invisible Collection (Jonathan’s review – Intermittencies of the Mind)

Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life (Lisa’s review – ANZ Lit Lovers)

Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life (Melissa’s review – The Book Binder’s Daughter)

A Game of Chess (David’s review – David’s Book World)

Have you read ‘A Game of Chess and other stories‘? What do you think about it?


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

Lake Constance

Lake Constance

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

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So, what is this book about?

Flight Without End By Joseph Roth

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews : 

Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

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

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The four short stories in the book address different themes.

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


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

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

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

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

Here are a couple of my favourite passages.

From ‘Problems Problems’ 

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

From ‘Eyes to Wonder’  

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

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

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

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

Ingeborg Bachmann

Ingeborg Bachmann

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ingeborg Bachmann

Ingeborg Bachmann

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

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

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

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

The Thirtieth Year By Ingeborg Bachmann

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Did you like them?


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Ingeborg Bachmann

…and Marlen

Marlen Haushofer

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


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


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


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


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


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

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I discovered Marlen Haushofer’s ‘The Wall’ through Caroline’s (from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) review of the film version of the book. It looked like a dystopian novel and I also suspected that Stephen King’s ‘Under the Dome’ was inspired by Haushofer’s book in some ways. Something about the book tugged at my heart, and I couldn’t articulate it then. So, I went and got the book and started reading it last week. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

The Wall By Marlen Haushofer

The story told in ‘The Wall’ is simple. The nameless heroine, a forty-something year old woman, goes on a holiday to the forest with her cousin and her cousin’s husband. They stay in a hunting lodge. The plan is to spend a few days there and relax and maybe do some hunting. The cousin and her husband leave our heroine during the evening and go to the nearby village. They leave their dog Lynx behind. It is late evening and the couple still haven’t come back. Our heroine has dinner, feeds the dog and goes to bed. When she gets up the next day morning, there is still no sign of her cousin and her husband. Our heroine and Lynx take a walk and during the course of that, she discovers that there is a transparent wall which has suddenly come up and it has shut her off from the village and from the rest of the world. (I don’t know whether it is true or whether it is just me noticing similarities between the two novels – in Stephen King’s ‘Under the Dome’ a giant dome suddenly covers a town one day, cutting it off from the rest of the world. Looks eerily similar to Haushofer’s wall.) It is only her and Lynx and maybe some wild animals in her part of the world. She hopes that in the next few days someone will come and rescue her. But nothing happens. As every day passes, the heroine realizes that no one is going to come. She also discovers something strange. She looks through the wall to the other side and discovers that there is no life on the other side. She discovers animals and people who are dead – it looked like some people had died while they were in the middle of doing something. It looked like some major catastrophe had struck the world and she and Lynx have survived it by luck. Then one day a cow walks into her life. And later a cat. And our heroine decides to take care of them and dedicate her life to everyday activities – taking care of her animals, getting food, managing the place like one does a farm. The rest of the story is about what happens in the life of these four characters (and more which join them later).


Though the story is quite simple, ‘The Wall’ is much more than this simple plot. It is about what a human can do when she is the last person on earth. It is about the relationship between humans and animals and the environment. It is about parents and children and letting go. It is about the relationship between women and men. It is about freedom and the lack of it. It is about love, loss and death. It is about renewing oneself. It is about the small joys of everyday life. The cover of the book quotes Doris Lessing on this :


“It is not often that you can say only a woman could have written this book, but women in particular will understand the heroine’s loving devotion to the details of making and keeping life, every day felt as a victory.”


‘The Wall’ is also a commentary on the human condition. It is a commentary on modern civilization. It is all these and more. I liked very much what the blurb said about the book :

The Wall is at once a simple and moving chronicle – of growing potatoes and beans, of hoping for a calf, of counting matches, of forgetting the taste of sugar and the use of one’s name – and a disturbing meditation on 20th-century history…The Wall is a haunting study of what a person can love when everything has been taken away.’


I loved Marlen Haushofer’s book. ‘Loved’ is an understatement. It deeply touched me and pulled all kinds of strings in my heart. I read it very slowly to make the reading experience last longer. I didn’t want it to end and I was sad when I crossed the last page. Normally after I finish reading a book, I take it to the next room (I keep unread books in one room and read books in another) and put it on top of the latest read pile. I look at that read book pile once in a while and try to remember which books I liked and which were my favourite scenes and passages. Sometimes I take out a book and read some of my favourite passages. But I rarely re-read a book. So, once a book reaches the next room, it almost always stays there. But, once in a blue moon a book comes along which resists that move. I am unable to take that book to the next room. My heart refuses to let go of the book. I carry the book everywhere and keep it with me and re-read my favourite passages many times. I keep that book on my study table or on my nightstand and keep looking at it. ‘The Wall’ is that one book which comes once in a blue moon. I don’t think I will be able to let go of it, anytime soon. I am not sure I will be able to let go of it, ever.


While reading the book, I felt that the Marlen Haushofer had poured her heart and soul into every page of the book and the whole book glows with her inner beauty. It made me think of the kind of beautiful person she must have been. There is beauty in every page of the book and in every scene. When I read the sentence – ‘So there I was in a wild and strange meadow in the middle of the forest and suddenly I was the owner of a cow’ –  it makes me smile again, like it did when I read it the first time. When I read this passage – ‘The little one’s nature was rather different from other house-cats; more peaceful, gentle and tender. She would often sit for ages on the bench in front of the house watching a butterfly’ – it makes my heart glow with pleasure, like it did the first time.


The author gives the reader an idea of what is going to happen at the end of the book, and so I was dreading when I reached the last part of the book. My dread increased with every page, because joy, beauty and happiness continued to flow from the pages of the book and I was hoping against hope that what the author was hinting at was not to be. Well, the heartbreaking thing did happen at the end. But the ending of the story was life affirming too. I finished reading the book yesterday, but I still can’t stop thinking about the heroine, Lynx the dog, the cat, Pearl the kitten, Tiger the tomcat, Panther his brother, Bella the cow, Bull her son – they haunt me in my dreams in gentle ways.


I have read some wonderful books this year but I have no hesitation in saying this – ‘The Wall’ is my favourite read of the year. I am planning to read some wonderful books in the coming months, but I don’t think there is any book which is going to nudge it even gently from that position. It is also one of my favourite books ever. I am planning to read it again later this year.


If you haven’t read ‘The Wall’ yet, I am jealous of you. Because when you get to read it, you are going to experience the pleasure and delight and joy of reading it for the first time. But I hope that you don’t keep me jealous for long. I hope you go out and get the book and read it now.


I hope to watch the film version of ‘The Wall’. I can’t imagine how a film can be made of this beautiful book, but I would like to find out. I also discovered that there are two other Marlen Haushofer books available in English translation – ‘The Loft’ and ‘Nowhere Ending Sky’. I hope to read them sometime.


I will leave you with some of my favourite passages in the book. It was very hard for me to choose a few passages and leave others out, because every passage was beautiful and quotable.


Lynx the dog


Lynx was very cheerful, in very high spirits, but an outsider probably wouldn’t have noticed the difference. He was, after all, cheerful almost all the time. I never saw him stay sulky for more than three minutes. He simply couldn’t resist the urge to be cheerful. And life in the forest was a constant temptation to him. Sun, snow, wind, rain – everything was a cause for enthusiasm. With Lynx nearby I could never stay sad for long. It was almost shaming that being with me made him so happy. I don’t think that grown animals living wild are happy or even content. Living with people must have awoken this capacity in the dog…Sometimes I even imagined there must be something special about me that made Lynx almost keel over with joy at the sight of me. Of course there was never anything special about me; Lynx was, like all dogs, simply addicted to people.


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.


The Cats


If it’s raining, or if there’s a storm, the cat tends to become melancholy, and I try to cheer her up. Sometimes I succeed, but generally we both sink into hopeless silence. And very rarely the miracle happens : the cat stands up, presses her forehead against my cheek and props her front paws on my chest. Or she takes my knuckles between her teeth and bites at them, gently and daintily. It doesn’t happen terribly often, for she’s sparing with proofs of her affection. Certain songs send her into raptures, and she pulls her claws over the rustling paper with delight. Her nose gets damp, and a gleaming film comes over her eyes.


All cats tend toward mysterious states; then they are far away and entirely impossible to reach. Pearl was in love with a tiny red velvet cushion that had belonged to Luise. For her it was a magic object. She licked it, scratched runnels through its soft nap and finally rested on it, white breast on red velvet, her eyes narrowed to green slits, a magnificent fairy-tale creature.


All my cats have had a habit of walking around their bowls after eating and then dragging them along the floor. I don’t know what it means, but they do it every time, without fail. In general, cats obey a practically Byzantine series of ceremonies and take it very badly if you disturb them during their mysterious rites. In comparison with them, Lynx was a shameless child of nature, and they seemed to hold him rather in contempt for that.


Bella the cow


When I combed Bella I sometimes told her how important she was to us all. She looked at me with moist eyes, and tried to lick my face. She had no idea how precious and irreplaceable she was. Here she stood, gleaming and brown, warm and relaxed, our big, gentle, nourishing mother. I could only show my gratitude by taking good care of her, and I hope I have done everything for Bella that a human being can do for their only cow. She liked it when I talked to her. Perhaps she would have liked the voice of any human being. It would have been easy for her to trample and gore me, but she licked my face and pressed her nostrils into my palm. I hope she dies before me; without me she would die miserably in winter.


The Heroine


In my dreams I bring children into the world, and they aren’t only human children; there are cats among them, dogs, calves, bears and quite peculiar furry creatures. But they emerge from me, and there is nothing about them that could frighten or repel me.


The White Crow


This autumn a white crow appeared. It always flies a little way behind the others, and settles alone on a tree avoided by its companions. I can’t understand why the other crows don’t like it. I think it’s a particularly beautiful bird, but the other members of its species find it repugnant. I see it sitting alone in its spruce-tree staring over the meadow, a miserable absurdity that shouldn’t exist, a white crow. It sits there until the great flock has flown away, and then I bring it a little food. It’s so tame that I can get close to it. Sometimes it hops about on the ground when it sees me coming. It can’t know why it’s been ostracized; that’s the only life it knows. It will always be an outcast and so alone that it’s less afraid of people than its black brethren…I want the white crow to live, and sometimes I dream that there’s another one in the forest and that they will find each other. I don’t believe it will happen, I only wish it very dearly.


The Adder


Only much later, up in the pasture, did I actually see an adder. It lay sunning itself on a scree slope. From that point on I was never afraid of snakes again. The adder was very beautiful, and when I saw it lying there like that, entirely devoted to the yellow sun, I was sure it had no intention of biting me. Its thoughts were remote from me, it didn’t want to do anything but lie in peace on the white stones and bathe in sunlight and warmth.


The Forest


It’s never entirely silent in the forest. You only imagine it’s silent, but there is always a whole host of noises. A woodpecker taps in the distance, a bird calls, the wind hisses through the grass in the forest, a big branch knocks against a tree-trunk, and the twigs rustle as little animals scurry around. Everything is alive, everything is working. But that evening it really was almost silent.


The Flowers


In cyclamen flowers the red of summer combines with the blue of autumn into a pinkish purple, and their fragrance recaptures all the sweetness of the past; but as you inhale it for longer, there is a quite different smell behind it : that of decay and death. I have always considered the cyclamen a strange and rather frightening flower.


Have you read Marlen Haushofer’s ‘The Wall’? What do you think about it?

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