Posts Tagged ‘Contemporary German Literature’

I got ‘A Whole Life’ by Robert Seethaler as a Christmas present from one of my favourite friends. I read it as soon as I got it, in one day, which rarely happens for me. It is a German book, it is around 150 pages, it has big font with wide spacing and it is a hardback – all things that I love. So, no wonder, I finished reading it in a day. I have been wanting to write about it for a while, but life distractions got in the way. Last week I saw it in the MAN Booker International Prize Longlist and I was very happy. I have rarely read a book before it appeared in any longlist. I normally read some of them after they do. So, this is a wonderful first for me. So, I thought that I should no longer delay writing my thoughts. So, here is what I think.


‘A Whole Life’ tells the story of Andreas Egger, since the time he was a child till the end of his life. He starts his life as an orphan who ends up in his uncle’s home in the valley. His uncle treats him as the unofficial servant of the family and makes him do all kinds of work so that he can get a proper meal. On the way, Egger picks up different kinds of skills, moves out of his uncle’s home and gets a job at a company, does all kinds of risky work, falls in love, gets married, goes to war – well you have to read the book to find out what happens to him. I think I have revealed more than necessary.


The thing I loved about Seethaler’s book was how it described life from the point of view of an introverted man – someone who is painfully shy, keeps to himself, whom everyone generally ignores, who likes learning things but does it slowly, who lives a rich interior life which others are hardly aware of. In some ways Seethaler’s hero made me remember the great introverted heroes of Patrick Suskind’s novels, ‘Perfume’ and ‘The Pigeon’. Egger has all kinds of experiences that the world throws at him and at times he seeks new ones that don’t come his way. And in the end he looks back and decides that he has lived an interesting life – it was satisfying and contented though he could have done without some of the sad moments. The book also made me remember Christa Wolf’s ‘August’ which has a similar plot, but the details are different – Wolf’s book is more like a short story while Seethaler’s book is more fleshed out.


There are many beautiful passages in the book, some of them about nature, some of them about life. I will share a few here so that you can get a taste of Seethaler’s gorgeous prose.


Sometimes on mild summer nights, he would spread a blanket somewhere on a freshly mown meadow, lie on his back and look up at the starry sky. Then he would think about his future, which extended infinitely before him, precisely because he expected nothing from it. And sometimes, if he lay there long enough, he had the impression that beneath his back the earth was softly rising and falling, and in moments like these he knew that the mountain breathed.


Up here the ground was soft and the grass short and dark. Drops of water trembled on the tips of the blades, making the whole meadow glitter as if studded with glass beads. Egger marveled at these tiny, trembling drops that clung so tenaciously to the blades of grass, only to tall at last and seep into the earth or dissolve to nothing in the air.


I have other favourite passages, but they all seem to have spoilers and so I didn’t want to share them here.


I have to again say here that I was delighted to see Seethaler’s book in the MAN Booker International Prize longlist. German books normally haven’t done well in international prizes recently from what I have seen and I don’t know why this is the case. Because German literature is beautiful and I love it. I don’t know whether Seethaler’s book will win the prize (I think it is up against some tough competition with Nobel Prize winners Orhan Pamuk and Kenzaburo Oe to contend against), but I will be happy if it gets into the shortlist. That is a win for me. Here’s three cheers to Seethaler for writing this beautiful book and three cheers to contemporary German literature.


I know we are still in the first quarter of the year and it is early days yet, but I have a sneaky suspicion that Seethaler’s book will end up being one of my favourite books of the year.


Have you read ‘A Whole Life’? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Francis Nenik’s ‘The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping’ for a while now. I won it as a giveaway during one of the earlier German Literature Months, and I can’t believe that I waited so long to pick it up. But I finally read it in one sitting and I am glad I did. It is also my second Katy Derbyshire translation – Yay!


‘The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping’ has two parts. The first part follows the lives of two poets – Nicholas Moore who is English and Ivan Blatny who is Czech. The story happens during the Cold War era. Moore and Blatny lead very similar lives though they are from very different countries – they are born at around the same time, get their poetry published around the same time, are ignored by the literary establishment after a while and are forgotten as the years pass. There is one difference though. Blatny, during his famous years as a poet, comes to England with a Czech delegation of literary artists, absconds from his delegation and seeks asylum and settles down in England. He is not happy being in exile though and ends up being in a psychiatric hospital most of the time. The parallel stories of these two poets are told in an interesting way – when a particular event of one poet’s life is described the narrative moves to describing the life of the other poet. This is a bit disconcerting in the beginning, but because the two poets have had similar lives, the narrative flows smoothly after a while, and we no longer bother to check who is who or what happens next in the earlier story.


The second part of the book – the bigger part – is a collection of letters between Moore and Blatny. When we reach this part, we are surprised that the two corresponded. We want to find out what they wrote to each other and what they discussed about. Did they discuss about their similar lives? Did they discuss poetry? Did they meet? Well, you have to read the book to find out.

When I reached the last pages of Francis Nenik’s book, I didn’t want it to end – which is always a great sign. I wished that instead of being such a short book – it is around sixty pages long (it is part of a short story collection in the original German) – I wish it had been a longer novel. There could have been more events in the two poets’ lives – backstories, poetry discussions, friends, love interests, their relationship with their benefactors – and there could have been more letters between them. I wish it had been like A.S.Byatt’s ‘Possession’. But Nenik decides to keep it short and sweet and leaves us yearning for more. I felt sad when I finished reading the book.

Here are some of my favourite passages from the book.

Money, the lack of which grants writing full authenticity in the mind of many a critic but leaves nothing more than a hole in the writer’s stomach…

And finally the apocalypse returns to his life, butting in like an unwanted guest who had simply gone for a quick pee between revelations. But God, who’s nothing but a dog backwards, taught him to carry on.

He sits there and enjoys what he sees; thirty-one translations of a single poem, the proof of the untranslatability of poetry turned sheer on its head, thirty-one versions that are neither originals nor forgeries and not even both, which does not trouble their creator to any great extent…

Have you read Nenik’s book? What do you think?

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German Literature Month (GLM) is my favourite reading event of the year and I couldn’t wait for November to arrive. I have also not blogged for a long time and I was hoping that I would be able to get out of my blogging slump during GLM. Normally I make a reading plan for GLM, post about it, and then start reading books on my planned list. After I finish reading a book or two, I just ignore my plan and start reading spontaneously. I love making reading plans. But this year, I thought I will just get started on the reading front. I didn’t want to plan – I just wanted to get on with the action. I am happy to report that so far it has worked well – I have finished one book and I am nearly through with a second one – two days, two books, not bad, isn’t it?


The first book I read for this year’s GLM was Judith Hermann’s ‘Summerhouse, Later’. I discovered this book through Caroline’s post on German women writers. Once I started reading Hermann’s book, I couldn’t stop and I finished reading it in a day. Here is what I think.


‘Summerhouse, Later’ is Judith Hermann’s debut collection of short stories. It has nine stories, most of them set in contemporary Germany (one of them is set in New York and it has American characters). I liked most of the stories. My most favourite story was ‘Sonja’ which was about a man who has a relationship with two women – one is clearly a romantic relationship with his girlfriend while another is with a mysterious woman and it is not really romantic, but fascinating and difficult to describe. The story sounded suspiciously similar to Peter Stamm’s ‘Seven Years’ and so I went and checked their publication dates. Hermann’s book came out in 1998, while Stamm’s book came out in 2011. I found myself yelling – “Peter Stamm, please, please, please, don’t do this! Please write your own stories!!” Judith Hermann gets an extra dose of affection for writing an original story and Peter Stamm – well, if he does this again, he will be moving into the blacklist. My second most favourite story was ‘Hunter Johnson music’ which is about a brief friendship between a middle-aged man who lives in a hotel in New York and a young woman who stays there for a brief while and how both of them briefly bond over classical music. I also liked the title story, which is about a young man who buys a summer house so that his friend will love him back, and the first story in the book called ‘The Red Coral Bracelet’, in which a young woman discovers her grandmother’s secret love story from the distant past.

Hermann’s prose glows throughout the book and there are beautiful passages in nearly every story – I can only imagine how beautiful it must read in the original German. 

If you like contemporary German literature, especially short stories, this book is for you.

Many of the reviews (quoted in the book) said that the book is about the post-Berlin-wall generation. For example – “Nine glimpses of post-wall Berlin that shimmer with dark wit and intelligence” and “Focuses on the breakout generation of Berliners…who grew up after the Wall came down.” Well, for starters, not all the stories are set in Berlin nor are they all about Berliners. One of the stories is set in New York and has only American characters. In one of the stories, the characters mostly spend their time in the countryside driving around in cars. One of the stories is set in a tropical island in the Caribbean. Another has a character from Bali. One of them is about the Russian adventure that one of the characters has. The point is that this book is not about post-Berlin-Wall Berliners. It is a contemporary work of German literature and is a short story collection. I hate descriptions which equate all German literature into categories like post-Berlin-Wall, Cold War Era, Nazi Germany, Holocaust, Weimar era etc. There are German books which are not political – there are love stories, crime novels, literary fiction, philosophical novels and every other kind in between. German literature is rich and defies all attempts to put it into a small box. So reviewers, please don’t pigeonhole German literature!

Here are some of my favourite passages from the book.

From ‘Sonja’

Today, I think I was probably happy during those nights. I know that the past always becomes transfigured, that memory has a soothing effect. Perhaps those nights were merely cold and entertaining in a cynical way. Today, though, they seem so important to me and so lost that it grieves me.

From ‘Bali Woman’

There are times when winter reminds me of something. A mood I was once in, a desire I once felt? I don’t exactly know. It is cold. The air smells of smoke. Of snow. I turn around and listen for something I can’t hear. There’s a word on the tip of my tongue, I can’t say it. A kind of restlessness, you know? You do know. But, as you would say, what is nameless should remain nameless.

Have you read Judith Hermann’s ‘Summerhouse, Later’? What do you think about it?

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This year I wanted to read atleast one book by each of the five J’s – Juli (Zeh), Julia (Franck), Judith (Hermann) and the two Jennys (Zoë and Erpenbeck) – authors who are affectionately known as ‘Fräuleinwunder’. Last month I read Zoë Jenny’s ‘The Pollen Room’ and loved it. This month it is the turn of Juli Zeh. I loved the central theme of ‘Dark Matter’ and so decided to read it. Here is what I think.

Dark Matter By Juli Zeh

‘Dark Matter’ is a crime thriller and is also a book which has a scientific theme. Two of the main characters, Sebastian and Oskar, are scientists who are potential Nobel prize winners. They have been friends since university days. Sebastian is married to Maike and has a son. Oskar is still single. Sebastian and Oskar frequently have debates on physics – on quantum mechanics and the wave equation and on whether the Schrödinger’s cat analogy can apply to the world from a human perspective. Sebastian and Oskar hold different points of view on this and so frequently the debates are heated. One day Sebastian is taking his son to camp. While stopping by at a store for getting supplies, he discovers that his son has disappeared. He gets a phone call from an unknown number and a woman on the other side tells him that Dabbelink must go. Dabbelink is Sebastian’s wife Maike’s friend and Sebastian is a little jealous of their relationship. Now after this phone call, Sebastian thinks that his son has been kidnapped and he has to kill Dabbelink to get his son back.

I will stop here as I don’t want to reveal any spoilers. Does Sebastian kill Dabbelink? Do the kidnappers return his son? What is the role of Schrödinger’s Cat in all this? You have to read the story to find out the answers.

‘Dark Matter’ is a very different kind of thriller. There is a physics theme which underlies the whole book. So, there are lots of insightful, philosophical passages which are very beautiful to read. There are many discussions on scientific concepts and how they relate to our everyday world. I loved these passages. There are also two interesting detective characters in the story – Detective Rita Skura who is working hard to prove herself in a man’s world and Detective Superintendent Schilf who finds out the truth in unconventional, unlikely ways. I loved the scene in which Rita Skura is introduced. I loved all the main characters in the story – they were well fleshed out, complex and unique.

There were two mysteries in the story – one of them which is revealed to the readers at the beginning and another which is revealed in the end. I found that to be the weakest part of the book – the plot. I could understand the underlying philosophical ideas and scientific concepts and the way those got manifested in the real world were quite interestingly explained. But the plot was still not very satisfying, in my opinion.

Having said that, I still liked the book – there were beautiful passages throughout the book, the discussions on quantum mechanics, the wave equation, Schrödinger’s Cat and the true nature of time were fascinating (clearly Juli Zeh has done her research) and the characters were believable and real. The book defied categorization – it was a crime thriller, but there were beautiful literary and philosophical passages in it and there was also a lot of discussion on science – I loved this aspect of the book.

There were also many beautiful descriptions of Freiburg, where the story happens – the city where many wonderful German authors came from or studied in and where one of my favourite friends lives. Two of my favourite Freiburg passages in the story were these :

     As you approach it from the south-west, at a height of about five hundred metres, Freibuge looks like a bright, worn patch in the folds of the Black Forest. It lies there as if it had fallen from the heavens one day, right at the feet of the mountains. The peaks of Belchen, Schauinsland and Feldberg stand in a ring around it. Freiburg has existed for mere minutes in relation to these mountains, yet the town behaves as if it has always been there, next to the River Dreisam. If Schauinsland were to ripple its slopes in a shrug of indifference, hundreds of people cycling, riding in cable cars or looking for butterflies would die; if Feldberg were to turn away in boredom, that would be the end of the entire district. But the mountains don’t do that. Instead, they turn their sombre faces to the goings on in the streets of Freiburg, where people set out to entertain. Every day mountains and forests send a swarm of birds into the city to gather the latest news and report back. 

The detective has never particularly liked Freiburg. The people seem too happy to him, and the reasons for their happiness too banal. It smells a little of holidays, especially when the sun is shining. Students are lifting their bottoms on to hand-painted bicycles. Married women festooned in batik make their way to their favourite boutiques. A traffic jam of pushchairs has already formed outside a health food shop. No one here seems to feel the need to ponder the meaning of life. The detective sees only one face with a sceptical expression. It belongs to the blue-and-yellow macaw in a large cage next to the postcard stand… 

Some of my other favourite passages from the book were these :

They also never taught you what to do with a three-word sentence. It is always thee-word sentences that change the life of a human being in a decisive manner. I love you. I hate you. Father is dead. I am pregnant. Liam has disappeared. Dabbelink must go. After a three-word sentence, one is totally alone.

The beauty of time is that it passes unaided and is undisturbed by what happens within it. Even the next few seconds will disappear, and what seemed impossible a moment ago will be over and done with. Waiting is not difficult. Life consists of waiting. Therefore, Sebastian decides, life is child’s play.

Rita Skura has a cat. When she lifts the animal off the ground, it spreads the toes of all four paws as though it is preparing tiny parachutes for a fall. Rita Skura would never drop her cat, but the cat does not rely on that. If it were to fall one day it would land softly and stroke the hair on its chin with a superior look on its face. That is exactly why Rita loves her pet. It possesses two qualities which to the end of her days she will never have : healthy mistrust and natural elegance.

Despite years of experience, Schilf feels a slight shudder at the sight of a human fate turned into paper. Every file he opens is an intersection between his life and that of an unknown person. It will never be possible to untangle the threads that weave themselves together from the moment he starts reading.

So what is the final verdict on ‘Dark Matter’? I liked the book. I loved the beautiful passages and I will be coming back to read them again. I also hope to read more of Juli Zeh’s work. Her work seems to be really unique – literary, philosophical and contemporary themes all woven into one.

Have you read ‘Dark Matter’ by Juli Zeh? What do you think about it?

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I know that it is not November yet, but the German literary wind has started blowing early in these parts of the blogosphere 🙂 Here is how I discovered Zoë Jenny’s ‘The Pollen Room’ and what I think about it.


I discovered Zoë Jenny’s ‘The Pollen Room’ by accident. I wanted to read something by Judith Hermann, and before getting one of her books, I thought I will read about her in Wikipedia. There I discovered that there were a group of contemporary German women authors who were known together as ‘Fräuleinwunder’ and whose works have won awards and who were critically acclaimed. Other than Judith Hermann, there were some familiar names there – Julia Franck, Juli Zeh, Jenny Erpenbeck. Then there were Felicitas Hoppe and Zoë Jenny. I have never heard of both of them. Felicitas Hoppe’s works are hard to get in English, though she is famous in Germany and has won the Büchner award. Zoë Jenny’s first novel ‘The Pollen Room’ came out in 1997 and has been critically acclaimed and is a bestseller. I was able to get it and thought I will read it.


Memory is, of course, an unreliable thing. We think we discovered something in a particular way and then we find out that we were wrong. Keeping that in mind, I did some research and surprise, surprise – I discovered that my friend Caroline (from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) has recommended Zoë Jenny’s book in this post on German women writers. Also my friend Andrew has reviewed Zoë Jenny’s book here. All this can mean only one thing – that I first discovered this book earlier, before I re-discovered it again. The fascinating things that one learns about one’s memory everyday… 

The Pollen Room By Zoe Jenny

Now about Zoë Jenny’s book. I started reading it yesterday and finished it in one breath. When I say that, you probably know what that means – I loved the book. More about that later. First about the story. ‘The Pollen Room’ starts with the description of life at home by the narrator called Jo, who is in kindergarten. She tells us that her parents are separated, and she is living with her father. Her father prints books, but because they don’t sell he makes ends meet by driving a truck during the night. Jo meets her mother during the weekend. Her father, meanwhile, meets a new woman gets married to her, and then things don’t work well with her too and this new wife leaves him too. Jo’s mother takes her aside one day and tells her that she has fallen in love with someone she met and she will be moving to a new country. And then Jo doesn’t hear from her mother for the next twelve years. The scene then shifts to the current time and Jo is living with her mother. She has graduated from high school, and has taken a gap year to spend with her mother. Initially, she had planned to visit her mother for a short period of time, because she was hesitant whether her mother would be ready to talk to her. Her mother, though, welcomes her with both her arms. But sometime after that, her mother’s new husband dies in an accident, her mother has a depression and Jo ends up taking care of her. And that gap year stretches to more than one. The rest of the book is about nineteen year old (I am guessing the age here) Jo’s account of her everyday life and her reminiscences of the past.


That is the barebones plot – Jo’s account of her life with her dad and with her mom. She also talks about a couple of young men who were attracted towards her – and to whom she was attracted to. One of them rapes her and gets her pregnant and she has to have an abortion after that. Another of them wants to become a singer. Jo also describes her relationship with a girl she becomes friends with, Rea, who is from a rich family, but who rebels and becomes a street musician.


That is all about the plot of ‘The Pollen Room’. That is not the reason I loved it, though. The book has beautiful images and thoughts and descriptions from the first page. Starting from the first page in which the narrator describes her dad’s work till the last page when she describes the snow falling on to the ground and melting on impact, Zoë Jenny never lets go – she creates beautiful scenes, thoughts, ideas one after the other and floods our hearts and minds with dollops and dollops of beauty. The whole book was a bundle of exquisite, delightful beauty like a newborn baby. I thought that at some point – maybe fifty pages into the book – Zoë Jenny would slacken up a little bit with respect to the style and will get on with the narration of the story, but thankfully, she never lets go till the last page. To me that was the greatest strength of the book and the source of its greatest beauty and joy.


Zoë Jenny’s writing style made me think a lot about another of my favourite writers, Alexis Smith, and her book ‘Glaciers’. Both the writers have a remarkably similar sensitive style, bringing out the delicate beauty and joy of everyday scenes and objects and happenings, though Jenny wrote in German and Smith wrote in English. That legendary scene from Alexis Smith’s ‘Glaciers’ in which the introverted heroine holds a hot cup of coffee to warm her hands – that is there in Zoë Jenny’s book too. I really loved that. I also wondered what would happen if Zoë Jenny and Alexis Smith met and had a conversation. I would love to be part of that conversation, though I would probably be doing most of the listening. They will probably sit quietly for most of the time, in beautiful companionable silence, and wrap their hands around a hot mug of coffee, enjoying its warmth. 


It is early days yet, but I think ‘The Pollen Room’ will be one of my favourite reads of the year. It is perfect in every way – it is short, it has beautiful prose, thoughts, ideas and images, the plot is contemporary and sums up a time, there are book-ish scenes in the story, and most of the characters are likeable, though complex. It is a delicate, elegant work of literary art. This is a book that I will definitely be reading again. 


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

The darkness crept out from every corner like a starving beast. I went to the kitchen, flipped on the light, sat at the table and wrapped my fingers around his coffee cup, empty but still warm. I scanned the rim for brown splotches of dried coffee. If he didn’t come back, they would be the last signs I had of his existence, his life. As the cup gradually cooled in my hands, the night pervaded the house completely spreading into every cranny.

I lean forward and watch the water pour over the edge in a fat stream, a polished rod of crystal that shatters with a roar into a cloud of white slivers at the bottom.

I close the book with resignation and watch the smoke from my cigarette take on the shape of animals. The little creatures climb from my lips to the ceiling, which is a field for them to play in, though most never make it that far. They erase themselves before they get there. I try to blow them out in big enough puffs that they will survive the trip.

I imagine that the earth that I tread on is the top layer of skin of a living creature, perhaps some sort of sea lion. Somehow this idea makes me feel at peace…

The words Rea and Milwaukee shrivel up into tiny balls of anxiety. I am stuffed so full of such balls that they stretch and disfigure me, and I am in danger of bursting at the seams on every side. Each and every one of them is an independently functioning organism. They fight with one another constantly, as each of them wants me to itself. The Lucy ball is the biggest. Sometimes it goes away, but its here now and growing within me, battling against the others.

When I sit down on a bench nearby, they look over at me. There is nothing friendly in their eyes. I know I’m bothering them, but stay where I am nonetheless. I don’t tell them that I’m sitting here just to watch the snow fall to earth. This kind of snow doesn’t stick at all. It doesn’t coat the ground in a layer of pure white, because it melts as soon as it hits the earth, always keeping me waiting for the next flake, for the microsecond when it hits the ground but has not yet melted. I will wait here with the ladies for the snow to coat the ground in a layer of pure white, a white blanket of snow.

Have you read Zoë Jenny’s ‘The Pollen Room’? What do you think about it?


Other Reviews

Andrew Blackman

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I discovered ‘Rain’ by Karen Duve through Caroline’s (from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) post on contemporary German women authors. I haven’t heard of Karen Duve before and the plot of the story looked quite interesting with an atmospheric feel and so I thought I will read it for German Literature Month.

Rain By Karen Duve

The plot summary of the novel given in the back cover reads like this.


When Leon Ulbricht lands a contract to write a gangster’s memoirs and moves into his dream home in an East German village with his beautiful wife Martina, everything seems set for an idyllic existence. But the dream home turns out to be in the middle of a fetid swamp; his house and marriage are falling apart; he can’t write the book and has spent all of his advance. It rains without end and their attempts to repair the house, or at least dry it out, are hampered by the plague of slugs eating away at the foundations. And then the gangster, wondering why his memoirs are not yet completed, decides to get nasty.


How can one resist a story like that? I couldn’t.


Now that I have finished reading I have good news and bad news. The good news first. The book is very true to the title. It is a bookish personification of rain. The whole book evokes the atmosphere of rain – the drizzle, the downpour, the steady incessant irritating rain, the slugs which come with the rain, the grey sky, the rainy nights setting in early, water getting soaked into the house roofs, walls and the foundation, water dripping through the roof into the house, clothes refusing to dry, boots and shoes soaked with rain, everything outside being marshy and mushy, brown water coming out of the tap, the rain because of which the power gets cut, the telephone cable gets cut, the mobile battery runs out, when it is dark and one can’t do anything but only hope that daylight arrives soon so that atleast one can see around. It is not the beautiful romantic rain – where two people stand under one umbrella on a bridge near the Fontanka river in St.Petersburg with love in their eyes. This is the rain which is messy, which makes your life difficult, which brings slugs, insects and worms inside your home, which you didn’t even know existed, the rain which prevents you from going out and which prevents you from enjoying your staying in, a rain which gets into your nerves all the time. This is the rain which the book portrays from the beginning to the end. Full marks to Karen Duve for that. I haven’t read another book which portrays the annoying characteristic of rain as well as this one. The second nice thing about the book is the way it shows how the rain and the atmosphere and environment it creates transforms the people who live there, not just emotionally or psychologically but in probably very real ways. The way how, Leon starts resembling his next door neighbour Isadora at the end of the book is very uncanny. I didn’t like the main character in the story, Leon the writer, but I liked some of the other characters – Martina (Leon’s wife), Kay (one of their neighbours who loves Martina) and Noah (a stray dog whom Martina takes inside her home).


Now the bad news. I was expecting the book to evoke the atmosphere of rain. And that Karen Duve has masterfully done. But I also expected the book to have a plot which was quite engaging and funny and which grabbed my attention and made me laugh. That is what the blurb hinted at. Unfortunately, I felt that the book didn’t do that. It started off quite well but at some point, I felt that the depiction of the atmosphere and the environment won over the story and the humour. There are some nasty characters (which was okay with me) and some nasty, repulsive scenes (which was not okay with me). One particular scene was so repulsive that I was very upset with it and I also wondered why I bothered with the story. Luckily the book redeemed itself a bit after that. But that scene left a bad taste in the mouth.


In conclusion, I don’t know how to react to the book. I definitely didn’t like it. But the evocation of rain and the rainy atmosphere and environment was masterful. I don’t know whether it was just me – because ‘Rain’ was a bestseller in Germany and has been translated into sixteen languages – or whether other reviewers felt the same as me. So I did some research. Interestingly, I couldn’t find a single blogger-review of the book in English. But I found two other reviews – the Guardian review (by Margaret Stead) and the review at the Goethe Institut site (by Barbara Baker). These two reviews had opposite points of view – Stead’s praised the book while Baker’s review was more complex and was overall unfavourable to the book. I sided with Baker.


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


After only a minute out in the rain, Martina’s chin-length red hair was plastered to her face. A strand of it described a calligraphic flourish on her forehead, from which water licked its way down to her mouth.


The stream changed from flowing above ground to flowing underground like a needle swiftly stitching.


The sound woke Leon and Martina up on their first few nights. Then they integrated it into their dreams, which from now on were full of creaking bridges and falling trees.


The rain increased, falling from the sky like a set of evenly arranged guitar strings.


Have you read ‘Rain’ by Karen Duve? What do you think about it?

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After reading Peter Stamm’s brilliant ‘Unformed Landscape’ a week back, I thought I should read another Stamm book for German Literature Month. I decided to read ‘Seven Years’. Here is what I think.

‘Seven Years’ is a story told in the first person by an architect called Alex. The story flits between two time periods – the present when Alex is married to Sonia and has a daughter called Sophie, and the past when Alex was still a student at university. Alex describes how his architectural career evolved since those times. He also describes how he fell in love with the two women in his life, his wife Sonia and a Polish woman, Ivona. Alex and Sonia have been friends since childhood and their relationship evolves more or less naturally with some hiccups. But Alex himself doesn’t understand how he got attracted to Ivona, because by his own estimate, she is poor, unsophisticated, is an illegal immigrant, is too religious, is silent most of the time, is not educated or talented in any way. Sonia’s friend Antje is visiting and the past part of the story is mostly told by Alex to Antje with Sonia not present when the storytelling is in progress.


‘Seven Years’ can be called a story of a love triangle. It can also be called a novel on architecture. In between the triangle love story, Alex describes his thoughts on architecture in some beautiful passages. Peter Stamm’s spare prose is perfect as always. Most of the characters in the book were complex with flaws and that made the story very interesting and real. My favourite character in the book was Ivona – she is complex and flawed in her own way, but has a childlike simplicity too which probably makes her the character who finds the most happiness, inspite of the difficult situation she is in.


I couldn’t resist comparing ‘Seven Years’ with ‘Unformed Landscape’. I discovered that they were written nearly a decade apart and so the author and his writing style and the topics he would have been interested in would have evolved in that period. Giving allowance to such things, I feel that though ‘Seven Years’ was good, ‘Unformed Landscape’ was brilliant. Because I remember when I finished reading ‘Unformed Landscape’, I refused to let go off the book and carried it around for a couple of days, browsing it and reading my favourite passages again and again and refusing to pick up another book. That rarely happens to me. It is still there on the top of my book pile waiting to be re-read. I didn’t feel the same way about ‘Seven Years’. Of course, the problem is mostly with me, because after reading ‘Unformed Landscape’ I was expecting a similar book in ‘Seven Years’. But ‘Seven Years’ is not like that. It is a good book. It is worth a read. But in my opinion ‘Unformed Landscape’ is better – more dazzling, more brilliant and more beautiful.


I loved the cover of the edition of ‘Seven Years’ I read. It had two parts – a translucent dust jacket which had the title and the author’s and translator’s names. The cover image was on the actual cover which was visible through the translucent dust cover. Both of them together created a beautiful effect. This is probably not a new idea for cover designers, but this is new to me. I loved it.


If you like complex love stories with an architectural backdrop, you will love ‘Seven Years’. I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.


I thought about my new blueprint. It must be possible to create space that would allow feelings, that would enable and communicate the sort of freedom and openness I was thinking of. I envisaged lofty transparent halls, open staircases, the play of light and shade. I wasn’t quite sure whether I was awake or dreaming, but all at once I saw everything before me, clear and distinct.


I had reckoned I would get sick of Ivona sooner or later, and get rid of her, but even though the sex with her interested me less and less, and sometimes we didn’t sleep together at all and just talked, I couldn’t shake her off. It wasn’t pleasure that tied me to her, it was a feeling I hadn’t had since childhood, a mixture of freedom and protectedness. It was as though time stood still when I was with her, which was precisely what gave those moments their weight. Sonia was a project. We wanted to build a house, we wanted to have a baby, we employed people, we bought a second car. No sooner had we reached one goal than the next loomed into sight, we were never done. Ivona on the other hand seemed to have no ambition. She had no plans, her life was simple and regular. She got up in the morning, had breakfast, went to work. If it was a good or a bad day depended on certain little things, the weather, some kind words in the bakery or in one of the houses where she cleaned, a call from a friend with whom she had a drink after work or went to the movies. When I was with her, I participated in her life for an hour and forgot everything, the pressure of time, my ambition, the problems on the building sites. Even sex became completely different. I didn’t have to make Ivona pregnant, I didn’t even have to make her come. She took me without expectations and without claims.


Sometimes I fished out my old papers, projects I had worked on in college, competition entries from the time we started the business. Most of it looked alarmingly banal to me. But in the drawings I still sensed something of my mood in those years, my determination to go new ways. Nothing was sacred to me then, and nothing seemed impossible. For all the limitations of the work, there was a kind of truthfulness in it, a freshness that our current designs no longer had. I could understand architects like Boullée, who eventually turned into draftsmen pure and simple, without ever craving to see one of their designs realized. It was only in the fictive world of plans and sketches that you were free to do everything the way you wanted. I started drawing in the evenings, usually oversize interiors, empty halls with dramatic light effects, sacral buildings, labyrinths, and subterranean complexes.


You can find Tony’s review of the book here.


Have you read Peter Stamm’s ‘Seven Years’? What do you think about it?

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I loved Bernhard Schlink’s ‘Homecoming’ and ‘The Reader’ and I thought at some point that I would like to read every one of Schlink’s works which has been translated into English. When I heard about ‘The Weekend’ and how it has polarized readers – with some loving the book and some hating it – I thought that I will read it for German Literature Month and see where I stand on it. I had high hopes because Schlink had a hundred percent strike rate for me till now and typically that is the sign of a favourite author for me. I finished reading ‘The Weekend’ yesterday. Here is what I think.

The story of the ‘The Weekend’ is set during the weekend in a house in the German countryside. Jörg, who had been convicted for more than twenty years, for his violent activities when he was part of the RAF / Baader Meinhof group, has been pardoned by the President and is going to be released from prison. His sister Christiane arranges for a welcome party for him at her countryside home. She invites their common friends for the party – friends who once had the same political thoughts as Jörg, but who have since then, become part of the mainstream. Though Christiane thinks that it is going to be a nostalgic and warm weekend, things don’t go as planned. There are a few verbal battles between Jorg and one of his old friends Ulrich, a few secrets come tumbling out of the closet and everyone is not what they seem.


When I read a Bernhard Schlink book, I expect a few things in the book, which I like. They include things like – a first person narrator, not too many characters but a few characters which are well fleshed out, long monologues by the narrator on life, love, truth, philosophy, law and justice, one or two surprises in the plot, many beautiful passages. ‘The Weekend’ didn’t have most of these. There is no first person narrator. There are too many characters. At the beginning of the book, I had to keep referring back to find out who is who. There are a few monologues here and there but they were not as good as one expected them to be. There are one or two surprises but they don’t have the impact that one expects. There is a tacked in 9/11 scene which feels totally out of place. There are one or two beautiful passages but not enough number of them.


The basic premise of the book – a few old friends some of whom have controversial backgrounds meet during a weekend and relive their past – is quite interesting. It raises the reader’s expectations. But I think not anyone can pull this off. I think this kind of setting would have worked well in an Agatha Christie novel. Or an Anton Chekhov play. Or maybe even a film. It didn’t work so well here.


I didn’t really like most of the characters in the book – I didn’t dislike them, but I didn’t like them either. However, there was one character whom I liked. She was Margarete,  Christiane’s friend. Unfortunately, she didn’t get the space she deserved.


‘The Weekend’ is not Schlink’s best work. It was quite disappointing. Still, I think Schlink’s two good books out of three is a good strike rate though it is down from the rarefied level of a hundred percent. I hope my next Schlink novel is better.


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


      The dawns are quiet, and they are melancholy – like the noontimes and evenings, like the mornings and the afternoons. They are melancholy not only in autumn and winter, but also in spring and summer. It’s the melancholy of the high sky and the wide, empty land. The eye finds no purchase among the trees, the church tower, the electricity supply with its masts and cables. It finds no mountains in the distance and no city nearby, nothing to set boundaries and create a space. The eye loses itself. The visitor who lets his eye wander loses himself along with it, and it saddens him and is at the same time so compelling that he is seized by the longing to merge with it. Simply to lose himself.

      Anyone who was born and bred here, and who sets about taking a job and founding a family, has to make his mind up. Stay or go. Staying small under this sky and in this void or growing at the cost of a life away from home. Even those who do not consciously make the decision sense that if they stay, their lives will be small even before they have really begun, and that if they leave, they are leaving behind not just a place but a life. A life whose small format is full of beauty – that’s why the visitors come back and buy themselves a house or a farm and yield to the desire to lose during the weekend.


You can find Caroline’s review of the book here.


Have you read Bernhard Schlink’s ‘The Weekend’? What do you think about it?

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I got Herta Müller’s ‘The Land of Green Plums as a gift from my favourite friend and I have been waiting for the right time to read it. So, when German Literature Month arrived, I took it down from the shelf and read it. Here is what I think.

‘The Land of Green Plums describes life in Romania during the Cold War. It is told by an un-named woman narrator who tells us about her life and that of her family and her three friends. The story starts from the time the narrator is studying at university and is living in a dormitory with five other girls. One day one of the girls commits suicide and the university disowns her. The narrator gets to meet three other boys who knew this girl. The four of them become friends. The rest of the story is about the four of them and how they graduate from university, go to work, how they live under the shadow of a totalitarian regime every day with uncertainty and fear and how they lose their jobs as they refuse to give up their individual freedom and how they try to emigrate from Romania.


Reading ‘The Land of Green Plums was like reading a long poem. A poem not in the popular sense in which we use that word – that the book has beautiful sentences, though it certainly had that – but in the sense that it is a succession of powerful, beautiful, fascinating and vivid images which are held together by a plot. The description in the inside flap calls them ‘simple images of hieroglyphic power’ and it felt nice reading that. Till around one-third of the book, the images predominate the plot and so the temptation is to linger on the sentences and read them again. And again. The story takes precedence over the plot after that, but the images keep coming till the end of the book.


The book starts with the lines :


When we don’t speak, said Edgar, we become unbearable, and when we do, we make fools of ourselves.


And in a very James Joycean way, the book ends with the same lines, giving it a circular look.


While reading the book, I had a suspicion at some point of time that many of the events described in it might be autobiographical. When I read the author’s Nobel lecture at the end of the book, these suspicions were confirmed. Some of the anecdotes that the author talks about in her lecture – for example, how her mother is taken to the police station and is locked inside for the whole day and how she cleans the room in the police station to keep herself occupied – all have corresponding anecdotes in the story. It is tempting to conclude that this book is a fictionalized autobiography of the author.


Towards the end of the book, there is a scene where the narrator’s friend Edgar is asked by the West German authorities to produce a document which said that he was fired from his job in Romania for political reasons. And that document has to come from the Romanian government. And this during the Cold War era. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry when I read this. Really?


The edition of the book I have also had Herta Müller’s Nobel lecture. It is a beautiful essay on its own and was wonderful to read. I would love to read Müller’s memoir or autobiography, if she has written one, sometime. I have also not read many books by Nobel prize winning authors. When I did a quick count I discovered that out of 112 Nobel prize winning authors, I have read only 10 (and a short story by one, but I think that doesn’t count). So, it was nice to read add Herta Müller as my 11th author.


I liked ‘The Land of Green Plums very much. It is not a book that one reads at a fast pace – though that is possible because the language is deceptively simple – but a book which one reads slowly and lingers on each sentence. I want to explore more of Müller’s works now.


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


Mother says : Whenever life becomes unbearable, clean your closet. Then your worries will go out through your hands, and that will free our head.


You could say Lola’s sentences in your mouth. But they didn’t let themselves be written down. Not by me. They were like dreams, suited for speech but not for paper. When I wrote them down, Lola’s sentences dissolved in my hand.


My father, said Georg, took his bicycle to the station so that he wouldn’t have to walk so close to me on the way there, and so that, on the way back, his empty hands wouldn’t remind him he was returning home alone.


      Because we were afraid, Edgar, Kurt, Georg, and I met every day. We sat together at a table, but our fear stayed locked within each of our heads, just as we’d brought it to our meetings. We laughed a lot, to hide it from each other. But fear always finds an out. If you control your face, it slips into your voice. If you manage to keep a grip on our face and your voice, as if they were dead wood, it will slip out through your fingers. It will pass through your skin and lie there. You can see it lying around on objects close by.

      We could see whose fear was where, because we had known each other so long. Often we couldn’t stand each other, because we were all we had. We had no choice but to lash out at each other.


I wanted love to grow back, like the grass when it’s mown down. To grow differently, if need be, like children’s teeth, like hair, like fingernails. To spring up at will, wild and untended.


The child leaves the house where there are only grown-ups, to go play with the other children. She carries as many toys as she can, in her hands, in her pockets. Even in her underpants and up her dress. She empties out her dress and underpants, and spreads out her toys. Then, when the others start to play, the child can’t stand to have her toys played with by anyone else.

      The child is transformed by envy, because others are better at playing. By selfishness, because others are grabbing things that belong to her. But also by fear, that she will be left alone. The child doesn’t want to be envious, selfish, or fearful, and becomes all the more so.


      Mother swallowed. She said quietly : What time is it?

      On her wrist she had one of my father’s dead wristwatches. Why do you wear it, I asked, if it doesn’t work? Nobody can see that, she said, and ou have one too. Mine works, I said, otherwise I wouldn’t be wearing it. If I wear a watch, it makes me feel more secure, she said, even if it’s not working. Then why ask what time it is? I said.

      Because that’s all I can talk to you about, said Mother.


A friendship isn’t like a jacket that you can pass on to me, he said. I could slip it on. It might even look as though it fitted, from the outside, but on the inside it wouldn’t keep me warm.


This passage is from Muller’s Nobel lecture.


“DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF was the question my mother asked me every morning, standing by the gate to our house, before I went out onto the street. I didn’t have a handkerchief. And because I didn’t, I would go back inside and get one. I never had a handkerchief because I would always wait for her question. The handkerchief was proof that my mother was looking after me in the morning. For the rest of the day I was on my own. The question DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF was an indirect display of affection. Anything more direct would have been embarrassing and not something the farmers practiced. Love disguised itself as a question. That was the only way it could be spoken : matter-of-factly, in the tone of command, or the deft maneuvers used for work. The brusqueness of the voice even emphasized the tenderness. Every morning I went to the gate once without a handkerchief and a second time with a handkerchief. Only then would I go out onto the street, as if having the handkerchief meant having my mother there, too.”


Have you read Herta Müller’s ‘The Land of Green Plums? What do you think about it?

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I read Bernhard Schlink’s ‘Homecoming’ last year and liked it very much. I have wanted to read other books by him since then, especially his more famous book ‘The Reader’. So when German Literature Month arrived this year I added ‘The Reader’ to my ‘Must read’ list. I finished reading it today. Here is what I think.

I am not going to bore you with the plot outline of the story, as you have probably seen the movie version of ‘The Reader’ (for which Kate Winslet won an Oscar). What I would like to say after reading the book is this. The movie stays more or less faithful to the book with some minor liberties to the screenplay. When I read the book and the parts about Hanna, Kate Winslet’s face kept coming to my mind. That is one of the problems of seeing the movie version before reading the book.


Which one is better – the movie or the book? I saw the movie a few years back when it came out and I can only talk about what I remember now about the impression the movie created on me at that time. With our memory being unreliable most times, I would take my own comparison with a pinch of salt. But if I stick my neck out and make the comparison, I would say that the movie and the book were good in different ways. The movie was good in terms of creating a visual picture of the story and saying things which cannot be said in words. The book is good with respect to the philosophical discussions which are explored through the narrator’s voice, which is difficult to do in a movie. The reasoning behind Hanna’s reluctance to reveal her secret is also better explained in the book. It also leaves many clues to the central mystery which I don’t remember the movie doing. The book also mentions many German books and writers – Intrigues and Love by Schiller, Schnitzler, Heller, Fontane, Heine Morike, Kafka, Frisch, Johnson, Bachmann, Lenz – one can make a ‘TBR’ list out of it 🙂 The things about Bernhard Schlink’s prose in ‘Homecoming’ that I liked very much were all there in ‘The Reader’ – the deceptively simple prose which hides the depth of the philosophical ideas and questions he addresses, the insightful observations on different things, the quotable quotes in every chapter. I thought that as I knew the story already, the book wouldn’t affect me that much. But inspite of that, the ending was still heartbreaking. Hanna is a beautiful, haunting heroine and I will never forget her. I wish things had turned out differently.


If you have seen the movie version of ‘The Reader’, I don’t know whether I should recommend the book to you. It is good in its own right, but all the surprises have been revealed if you have already watched the movie. But if you haven’t watched the movie, then I would recommend that you read the book first and then watch the movie.


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


      Then I began to betray her.

      Not that I gave away any secrets or exposed Hanna. I didn’t reveal anything that I should have kept to myself. I kept something to myself that I should have revealed. I didn’t acknowledge her. I know that disavowal is an unusual form of betrayal. From the outside it is impossible to tell if you are disowning someone or simply exercising discretion, being considerate, avoiding embarrassments and sources of irritation. But you, who are doing the disowning, you know what you’re doing. And disavowal pulls the underpinnings away from a relationship just as surely as other more flamboyant types of betrayal.


      ‘I…I mean…so what would you have done?’ Hanna meant it as a serious question. She did not know what she should or could have done differently, and therefore wanted to hear from the judge, who seemed to know everything, what he would have done.

      Everything was quiet for a moment. It is not the custom at German trials for defendants to question the judges. But now the question had been asked, and everyone was waiting for the judge’s answer. He had to answer; he could not ignore the question or brush it away with a reprimand or a dismissive counterquestion. It was clear to everyone, it was clear to him too, and I understood why he had adopted an expression of irritation as his defining feature. It was his mask. Behind it, he could take a little time to find an answer. But not too long; the longer he took, the greater the tension and expectation, and the better his answer had to be.


Now escape involves not just running away, but arriving somewhere. And the past I arrived in as a legal historian was no less alive than the present. It is also not true, as outsiders might assume, that one can merely observe the richness of life in the past, whereas one can participate in the present. Doing history means building bridges between the past and the present, observing both banks of the river, taking an active part on both sides.


Have you read ‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink? What do you think about it?

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