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Posts Tagged ‘Christa Wolf’

I am coming to the party nearly a month late, but here I am finally. Here are my favourite books and my favourite reading moments from last year – books which were amazing, writers who were fascinating and everything in between with some fun facts thrown in along the way.

First a small description of how my reading year went. I started off quite well, but at some point after a month or two, I got into a reading slump. And this led to a blogging slump, and though I managed to recover from the reading slump during the second part of the year, with the exception of German Literature Month, I couldn’t come out of my blogging slump. I have never had a blogging slump like this since I started blogging more than seven years back. I hope the worst is over and I hope I will be a better blogger this year.

Fun Stats

I read fifty books last year. I thought because of my reading slump, I hadn’t read much, and so I was surprised when I discovered that it was not as bad as I thought – it was a typical reading year by my standards 🙂

The breakup goes like this : Novels : 17; YA : 3; Short Stories : 7; Fairytales : 1; Plays : 1; Graphic Novel : 2; Comics : 10; Anthology : 1; Poetry : 6; Memoir : 2. That is pretty diverse – not bad.

I read 33 books by male writers and 15 books by women writers – I aim for a 50-50 split and so that was bad. It was probably because all the comics I read were by male writers. There were two books that I didn’t count here – one was an anthology which had excerpts, stories and poems by different writers and the other was a poetry collection.

With respect to the countries from which the books were from (that is the nationality of the author – not the country where the story happens), the breakup went like this : America : 10; Britain : 7; Germany : 7; Belgium : 5; Italy : 3; Switzerland : 2; Chile : 2; Japan : 2; Canada (French) : 1; Canada (English) : 1; Russia : 1; France : 1; Finland : 1; Norway : 1; Lebanon : 1; Austria : 1; China : 1; India : 1; Greece : 1; Romania : 1.

I considered Vladimir Nabokov Russian, Rabih Alameddine Lebanese (though both of them probably were / are American citizens and wrote their novels in English) and Zoë Jenny Swiss (though she has started writing in English now and might have a British passport).  I also included Canada (French) and Canada (English) as separate categories because French literature from Canada is so ignored these days. Even Canadian readers don’t seem to know their French authors. It is so sad, because French-Canadian authors are so wonderful. (Nicole Brossard is my favourite.)

In terms of the language in which the books were originally written, this is how it went : English : 20; German : 10; French : 9; Italian : 3; Japanese : 2; Finnish : 1; Norwegian : 1; Chinese : 1; Tamil : 1; Greek : 1; Romanian : 1.

Most of the books were from the four big European languages – so, Hello, need more diversity here 🙂

Books I Loved

These are my favourite books from last year – books I absolutely loved. I couldn’t review many of them because of my blogging slump, which is unfortunate.

(1) The Pollen Room by Zoë Jenny – The story of a teenage girl and how she copes when her parents break up. The prose is beautiful and haunting, the story is moving and sometimes heartbreaking with some happy moments.

The Pollen Room By Zoe Jenny

(2) The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Thériault – A beautiful epistolary love story between a Canadian postman and a Guadeloupe woman, this book is also a love letter to the Haiku poetic form.

The Peculiar Life Of A Lonely Postman Denis Theriault

(3) The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (graphic novel version) – The graphic novel version of Gaiman’s classic story of a boy who is brought up by ghosts in the graveyard. The story is beautiful, and in this edition the galaxy of artists assembled deliver a stunning work of graphic novel art. A must read for graphic novel and Gaiman fans.

TheGraveyardBookByNeilGaimanPart1TheGraveyardBookByNeilGaimanPart2

(4) New and Collected Poems by Mary Oliver – Mary Oliver is one of my favourite poets and this collection has poems from many of her books. Beauty in the form of poetic art.

NewAndCollectedPoemsMaryOliver

(5) The Summer Book by Tove Jansson – Tove Jansson’s love letter to the Finnish summer, it is also the story of a young girl and her grandmother and their experiences in an island. Though it is a whole book, it can also be read as a collection of individual short stories. My favourite story was about Moppy the cat. It is one of the finest evocations of summer that I have read, alongwith Ray Bradbury’s ‘Dandelion Wine’.

SummerBookToveJansson

(6) An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine – The narrator of the story is a woman who used to work in a bookshop (and who is now retired). She is shy and introverted and spends most of her day reading. Every year she translates one or more famous world classics into Arabic. While telling her story and sharing with the reader what she does everyday and stories of her past, the narrator also shares her thoughts on books, reading, literature, writers, the art of translation and everything else that booklovers love to talk about and think about. This book is a love letter to reading, books, literature, translation and everything in between. I am so glad that I discovered it.

AnUnnecessaryWomanRabihAlameddine

(7) Cassandra by Christa Wolf – A retelling of the Troy legend from the perspective of Cassandra the prophet, it makes one realize how different things are when we see them with a new perspective. Wolf’s stunning prose leaps out of every page and I couldn’t stop re-reading my favourite passages again and again after highlighting them. One of my alltime favourite books.

Cassandra

(8) A Time to Love and a Time to Die by Erich Maria Remarque – There are a few scenes in Remarque’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ in which the main character goes home on furlough for a few weeks. Remarque takes this small part, moves the setting to the Second World War and expands it into a whole book. After a slow start, Remarque’s trademark prose flows beautifully, the plot moves smoothly and the main characters’ thoughts on war are quite fascinating. And the heroine of the story – Elizabeth – is one of the most fascinating heroines from any war novel. This is not just a wonderful war story but is also a beautiful love story. I can’t wait to read more of Remarque’s books. I read this for the Literature and War Readalong hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. I promised myself that I will write a proper review of this book one of these days and I hope to do so soon.

ATijmeToLoveRemarque

(9) Wild Words : Four Tamil Poets – This book has poems by four Tamil women poets who first came to prominence more than a decade back, because the patriarchy threatened them. Our heroines, of course, defied them, and have published many wonderful poetry collections since. I loved this passage from the introduction to the book – “It is perhaps useful to remember that the traditional values prescribed for the ‘Good’ Tamil woman were accham, madam and naanam (fearfulness, propriety, modesty or shame). Our poets have chosen instead, the opposite virtues of fearlessness, outspokenness and a ceaseless questioning of prescribed rules. It is surely significant that at different times and variously, they have claimed as their foremothers, role models and equals, Avvai, Velliviidhi and Sappho; Anna Akhmatova, Sylvia Plath and Kamala Das. And Eve, above all, who defied divine authority to pluck the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Bad Girls indeed, all of them.”

WildWords

(10) Letters of a Peruvian Woman by Françoise de Graffigny – It is the story of a Peruvian princess who is abducted by Spanish invaders who take her to their ship, but who is later rescued by a French ship and taken to France. There her rescuer takes her to his home, tries to teach her French language and culture and treats her like family. Our Peruvian heroine becomes best friends with her rescuer’s sister. The whole story is told as a series of letters that our Peruvian heroine writes to her fiance, who is the Peruvian king. Her observations on the differences between the two cultures are very insightful and humorous, Graffigny’s prose is beautiful and the surprise in the end takes us unawares – must have been stunning when it was first published in 1747. This books deserves to be more widely read, because it is so good.

LettersOfAPeruvianWomanGraffigny

(11) Making Movies by Sidney Lumet – The director of such masterpieces like ’12 Angry Men’ and ‘Network’ shares his thoughts on how to make a movie and the challenges involved. Though the technology he talks about is dated (because the book was published in the 1990s and Lumet mostly worked in the pre-digital era), his insights are wonderful. This book is a wonderful education in the art of film-making. A must-read for all movie lovers.

Making Movies By Sidney Lumet

Honourable Mentions

The following books deserve special mentions. It is really an extended list of favourites.

(1) Dylan Dog comics – This is a comics series which I discovered last year and which was originally published in Italian. The stories are mostly set in England and the characters are supposedly English, but our hero Dylan Dog wears stylish Italian suits and it is so hard to believe that he is anything but Italian. The artwork is stunning and the stories are interesting – mostly murder mysteries or strange happenings, some of which have logical explanations and others which seem to have supernatural causes. Umberto Eco says this about Dylan Dog – “I can read the Bible, Homer and Dylan Dog for several days without being bored.” Well, I am in good company 🙂

DylanDog

(2) A Little, Aloud – It is an anthology of prose and poetry for reading aloud to someone we care for. I didn’t read it aloud though and I read it to myself. It has poems, short stories and excerpts from novels and memoirs and other books. This was the book which got me out of my reading slump and so I have a lot of affection for it. My favourite from the book is a story by Saki called ‘The Lumber Room’ – it is so beautiful and the main character is an adorable and charming naughty boy and we love him from the first page and the ending made me smile 🙂 If you are interested you can read it here.

ALittleAloud

(3) A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness – A beautiful story about love and loss and how a boy copes with it. And there is a monster in the story, which teaches him the truths of life. What is not to like? I have to thank Claire from ‘Word by Word’ who recommended this beautiful book to me.

MonsterCallsPatrickNess

(4) The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart – It is the story of a young boy who is suffering from cancer. He discovers that the cancer has come back and there is no escape this time and decides to leave home, take his dog with him and climb Mt.Rainier. It is beautiful, charming, happy, sad and has a wonderful ending. A book I read in a day.

TheHonestTruthDanGemeinhart

(5) Poems that make grown men cry – The ‘men’ in the title made me hesitate (what about poems that make grown women cry) and most of the poems in the collection were by male poets and that also put me off, but I browsed the book and the poems were wonderful and I couldn’t resist getting it and reading it. It is a beautiful collection and I loved many of the poems, especially Billy Collins’ ode to his mother and Harold Pinter’s love poem. There is a companion volume which is expected this year and it is called – you guessed it – ‘Poems that make grown women cry’. I can’t wait for that.

PoemsThatMakeGrownMenCry

(6) The Death’s Head Chess Club by John Donoghue – I don’t know anyone who has read this, but the fact that it had ‘chess’ in the title made me read it. It is the story of a Jewish prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp who is the chess champion among the prisoners and an SS officer who is trying to start a chess club among the officers. When word of the legendary chess champion inmate reaches him, the SS officer can’t resist introducing a championship between the champion officer and the champion inmate. Of course, this can never go well. Whether they do here – you should read the book to find out. A love letter to chess and how small things like this can build bridges between people who are on opposite sides of the divide. This book deserves to be more famous.

TheDeathsHeadChessClub

(7) The Marvels by Brian Selznick – Brian Selznick brings his unique style of storytelling again, combining pictures and artwork interspersed by words which move the plot to tell the parallel stories of a family of actors and a young boy who runs away from school to stay at the home of his uncle, who turns out to be odd, and in some way connected to this actor family. The artwork is stunning and the story is nice.

TheMarvelsBrianSelznick

(8) Bluets by Maggie Nelson – I have to thank Bina from ‘If You Can Read This’ who first told me about this book. I don’t know whether to call this book a long essay or a memoir. In it, Maggie Nelson talks about love and longing, while also meditating on the colour blue and what it means to us today and what it meant to us across history. She quotes philosophers and writers who have written about everything blue and her style reminds us of Alain de Botton’s – with the book having no chapter divisions and each paragraph being numbered.

BluetsMaggieNelson

(9) Children’s Stories from Rumanian Legends by M.Gaster Delia from ‘Postcards from Asia’ told me about the Romanian legend of Harap Alb and when I thought about it, I realized that I had a collection of Romanian fairytales (which is unfortunately, out-of-print today). So, I took it out and read it and it was wonderful. I loved the fact that things were not black-and-white in these fairytales – in one story the main character falls in love with a beautiful woman (who loves him back) and then discovers that she is a demon and both the lovers run away to escape the clutches of her demon-father; in another story, there is an adorable little-devil who is always up to some mischief, creating trouble for humans. I hope to read more Romanian fairytales in the future.

RumanianLegends

So, that is the long (and hopefully not boring) account of my reading year in 2015. How was your reading year in 2015? Which were your favourite books?

 

 

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‘Cassandra’ is the second Christa Wolf novel that I decided to read for Christa Wolf week which is part of this year’s German Literature Month. (You can find more information on Christa Wolf week in Caroline’s post here.)

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‘Cassandra’ is a retelling of the events surrounding the Trojan war. It is told from the perspective of Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam, who is also a prophet and prophesizes that things are not going to go well for Troy, but no one believes her. Things, of course, go as she predicts – that is what happens with good doomsday prophets. The story starts at the end of the war in which Cassandra has been captured with her children and other Trojan women and is taken to Mycenae by Agamemnon. Her future is uncertain but being a good doomsday prophet, she knows that it is not going to be good. As she narrates the story, she looks back to the time before the war started and tries to see how it all started. She describes her relationships with her father King Priam and her mother Queen Hecuba, with her many brothers – Hector, Troilus, Aisakos (these three are her favourites for different reasons), Helenus, Paris – and her sister Polyxena, her lover Aeneas, Aeneas’ father Anchises (one of my favourite characters in the book), the Greek priest Panthous, her stepmother and Aisakos’ mother Arisbe, her maid Marpessa and many other fascinating characters who form a part of her life. Later, when the war has started, she describes her relationships with the Amazons, particularly Penthesilea (another of my favourite characters from the book – in the description of her fight with Achilles in the battlefield when I read the lines – “A woman – greeting him with a sword! The fact that she forced him to take her seriously was her last triumph” – it gave me goosebumps) and Myrine (who is loyal to both Penthesilea and Cassandra till the end).

Cassandra

Cassandra narrates the story from her perspective – that of a Trojan woman who is privileged because she is from the royal family, but who is also at many times ignored and treated not as an equal because she is a woman and she speaks the truth and gives logical arguments which men in the war council, including her father, find it hard to hear, because it is contradictory to their own narrative of the war. Cassandra also describes the status of the women of her own time and discovers to her surprise that sometimes women from poor families have more freedom than women from the royal household, because women from the royal household have to keep up with their appearances. At one point during the war, Cassandra joins a community of women from different walks of life (but none of them from the royal family) who get together and spend time in the evenings talking, singing, dancing, weaving and doing what they want to without being judged or without being compelled to do something else. Cassandra says this about that community –

 

“We did not see ourselves as an example. We were grateful that we were the ones granted the highest privilege there is : to slip a narrow strip of future into the grim present, which occupies all of time.”

 

I learnt many new things from Christa Wolf’s retelling of the Troy legend. For example, during schooldays when I first read the story, the way it was told was that Menelaus and Helen were happily married and Paris suddenly came on the scene and kidnapped Helen and so the Greeks went to war with the Trojans because of that. In that simplistic version of the story the Trojans were the bad guys and the Greeks were the good ones. Then I discovered that things were not so black and white. To my surprise, I discovered that Helen and Paris fell in love and Helen eloped with Paris. That was a twist to the story. Now the story got a big shade of grey. Christa Wolf’s version says that King Priam’s sister Hesione was the one who was originally abducted by the Greeks and one of the Greeks, Telemon, married her (and Hesione chose to stay with him and not come back) and when the Trojans asked the Greeks to send Hesione back, the Greeks laughed at them and that is how the whole Paris-abducting-Helen story started as revenge for the Hesione abduction. This adds another layer of murkiness to the whole story and we don’t know now who are the good guys and who are the bad ones – like in any real-life story, everyone is flawed and complex and there are only shades of grey. At one point Cassandra says –

 

Ten years of war. That was long enough to forget completely the question of how the war started. In the middle of a war you think of nothing but how it will end. And put off living. When large numbers of people do that, it creates a vacuum within us which the war flows in to fill. What I regret more than anything else is that, in the beginning, I too gave in to the feeling that for now I was living only provisionally; that true reality still lay ahead of me: I let life pass me by.

 

Another interesting thing that I learnt from the book was about Achilles. The popular description of Achilles is that he was a great hero. If you have read Roger Lancelyn Green’s retelling of the Greek legends (or for that matter anyone else’s) that is what you would be led to believe. But when we read Wolf’s ‘Cassandra’ that is not the impression we get. When we look at Achilles from Cassandra’s point of view, it is hard to like Achilles. Actually, it is hard not to hate him. He chases Cassandra’s brother Troilus into the temple and kills him in the temple (which is against the rules of war as a temple is  neutral ground and a sacred place). And, of course, there is that famous scene where he drags Hector’s body around and around in the battlefield. And the way he treats the Amazon Penthesilea’s body after he slays her. And the way he lusts after the Trojan princess Polyxena and demands her brother Hector to hand her over. And the way he treats Briseus, the fiancée of Troilus, after he takes her as a slave. He comes through as a brute and a barbarian. Did Homer and the other Greek minstrels get it wrong or am I seeing things wrong? I don’t know. Whatever the truth is, that guy Achilles – as far as I am concerned, he is blacklisted now.

 

And Cassandra’s sister Polyxena – I always thought that she was a nice, gentle person and loved Achilles (from the way she is depicted in Roger Lancelyn Green’s ‘The Luck of Troy’). Well, Polyxena turns out to be a more complex character than that – she has a complex relationship with Cassandra, she has an affair with a man far below her station, she says that she will marry Achilles to give pain to everyone.

 

And Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter. The story says that he sacrificed her before the war started as other Greek leaders and the priest demanded it. What kind of man does that? (And if you like pop-culture, you probably know that Callie from ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ is Calliope Iphigenia Torres – that is two Greek names there)

 

And King Priam and Queen Hecuba. I always thought that they were minor characters in the original story, but in Wolf’s retelling they are complex, fully-fleshed out characters with strong opinions on everything.

 

The book’s depiction of the Greeks – well, if we believe that, it is hard to like the Greeks. Most of them are brutal, they don’t follow the rules of warfare or treat their prisoners with dignity, they don’t treat women and children well, they don’t even seem cultured. It is hard to believe that our modern world arose from the cultural and political legacy of the Ancient Greeks. Of course, things are never black and white – the Ancient Greek world also had Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sappho, Hippocrates, Archimedes, Pythagoras, Aeschylus, Diogenes, Sophocles. Achilles is not the only Greek guy out there.

 

I don’t think I can do justice to ‘Cassandra’ in a short review. As you can imagine, I loved this beautiful book. It is epic, insightful and rich in the themes it covers – from the grand ones to the everyday ones –  and it is also the right size (two hundred pages) and so it is not so intimidating. Christa Wolf’s prose dazzles in every page – it is what we have to come to expect from the finest vintage German literature – there are beautiful sentences and passages in every page and I couldn’t stop highlighting. I can’t remember the last time I highlighted so many passages in a book. Which presents a big problem now, because I don’t know which passages to quote here, because there are so many beautiful ones. Here are some of my favourites.

 

Anchises

You could not help but look at his hands, which were almost always working a piece of wood, or atleast feeling it, while his eyes might suddenly listen to find out what quality or form was hidden in the wood. He never had a tree chopped down without first conferring with it at length; without first removing from it a seed or a twig which he could plant in the earth to ensure its continued existence. He knew everything there was to know about wood and trees. And the figures he carved when we sat around together, he then gave away like a prize; they became a sign by which we could recognize each other.

 

Faith

I could not say for how long I had been an unbeliever. If I had had some shock, an experience resembling conversion, I could remember. But faith ebbed away from me gradually, the way illnesses sometimes ebb away, and one day you tell yourself that you are well. The illness no longer finds any foothold in you. That is how it was with my faith. What foothold could it still have found in me? Two occur to me : first hope, then fear. Hope had left me. I still knew fear, but fear alone does not know the gods; they are very vain, they want to be loved too, and hopeless people do not love them.

 

Words and Pictures

If I grope my way back along the thread of my life which is rolled up inside me…here I am caught by the very word ‘girl’, and caught all the more by her form. By the beautiful image. I have always been caught by images more than by words. Probably that is strange, and incompatible with my vocation; but I can no longer pursue my vocation. The last thing in my life will be a picture, not a word. Words die before pictures.

 

Penthesilea

Penthesilea : The men are getting what they paid for.

Arisbe            : You call it getting what they paid for when they are reduced to the level of butchers?

Penthesilea : They are butchers. So they are doing what they enjoy.

Arisbe            : And what about us? What if we became butchers, too?

Penthesilea : Then we are doing what we have to do. But we don’t enjoy it.

Arisbe            : We should do what they do in order to show that we are different?

Penthesilea : Yes.

Oenone         : But one can’t live that way.

Penthesilea : Not live? You can die all right.

Hecuba          : Child, you want everything to come to a stop.

Penthesilea : That is what I want. Because I don’t know any other way to make the men stop.

 

I haven’t read the other two great retellings of the legends of the ancient world – Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Penelopiad’ and Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Lavinia’ – and the more recent ‘Memoirs of a Bitch’ by Francesca Petrizzo (the story told from Helen’s perspective). But having read Christa Wolf’s masterful rendition of the classic tale, I think Atwood and Le Guin might have a tough act to follow.

 

‘Cassandra’ is one of my favourite books of the year, a book I will be reading again, probably more slowly and lingering over every sentence. My alltime favourite German novel is Marlen Haushofer’s ‘The Wall’. Christa Wolf’s ‘Cassandra’  is up there with it – probably a close second, but definitely in the same zone. It is no longer lonely at that top for Haushofer as she has company now and that makes me very happy.

 

Have you read Christa Wolf’s ‘Cassandra’? What do you think about it?

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I wanted to read a Christa Wolf novel for Christa Wolf week which is part of this year’s German Literature Month. I decided to get started with ‘August’ because it was easily available and not very long. (You can find more information on Christa Wolf week in Caroline’s post.) This is also my first Katy Derbyshire translation and so I couldn’t wait to read it.

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August is a driver of a tourist bus. He takes tourists to Prague, Dresden and back to Berlin. While driving the bus and while taking breaks while the tourists are out, he remembers his past – when he was a young boy after the war, and he had lost his parents (he doesn’t know whether they have died or they are missing) and he has consumption and so is housed in a manor house turned into a hospital with other children and grownups who are suffering from the same condition. There he meets Lilo, an older girl, whom he adores. He remembers the old time with Lilo and other children at the hospital, his friendship, his love, his jealousy, his happy times and sad. He also remembers a time from later in life when he has become a grownup, when he meets and marries Trude and the happy and contented married life they had. The book flits between these three time periods back and forth, while August is driving back the tourist bus from Prague to Berlin. The story ends with his reaching Berlin, leaving the bus, driving his car and reaching his own house.

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I loved ‘August’. It is seventy four pages long and so can be probably called a novella. But even these seventy four pages are not really that – in all the pages, the text is printed only in the lower half. So it is really closer to thirty-seven pages – a long short story probably. The blurb says that Christa Wolf wrote it in one sitting as an anniversary gift to her husband. That might account for the shortness of it. Christa Wolf’s prose flows beautifully like a river throughout the book – it is beautiful but not demanding. I wondered whether all her books are like this and so I checked out another of her books ‘Cassandra’. The style there was very different – beautiful but demanding prose. I found that interesting. I loved the way the story of ‘August’ was told – during a bus trip with flashbacks. I loved the way Wolf describes August’s flashbacks –

He realizes he can flick through these old stories like through a picture book, nothing forgotten, no pictures faded. Whenever he wants, he can see it all in his mind’s eye – the inside of the castle, the broad curved staircase, every single room, the way the beds were arranged on the ward where Lilo was.

‘August’ has beautiful passages, happy and sad moments and a nice story told in beautiful prose. I can’t wait to read more Christa Wolf.

Here are some of my favourite passages from the book.

August keeps his cool. He never gets impatient. You have the patience of an angel, Trude used to tell him. He never loses his temper. His workmates appreciate that. Sometimes, he knows, they think he’s a bit boring. Come on, say something for a change, they used to nudge him in the beginning when they sat together in their lunch break. But what did he have to say? He had no reason to complain about his wife. No separation to report on. No arguments with his children to moan about. They didn’t have any children. It had simply turned out that way. There’d been no need to talk to Trude about it first. They wanted for nothing. And when Trude died two years ago he certainly couldn’t talk to anyone about it.

It’s not good coming home to an empty flat. You get used to it, they’d said when Trude died. August hasn’t got used to it. Every time it’s an effort, opening the front door when he comes back from work. Every time he’s afraid of the silence that will envelop him, something no radio and no television can dispel.

Have you read Christa Wolf’s ‘August’? What do you think about it?

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