Posts Tagged ‘Contemporary German Women Writers’

I discovered Elke Schmitter’s ‘Mrs.Sartoris’ through Caroline’s (from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) post on contemporary German women authors. When I read Caroline’s review of it, I decided that I had to read the book for German Literature Month.

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‘Mrs.Sartoris’ is narrated by Margarethe, a forty-year old woman, who is the Mrs.Sartoris of the title. She is married to Ernst and has a teenage daughter, Daniela. The whole book has two story strands. In the first of them, which starts the book, Margarethe talks about how one evening it was raining and she was driving and she saw a man in front of her trying to cross the road and deliberately hit him and killed him on the spot. The police are investigating the case, but because there are no eye witnesses, they are not able to make much progress. We don’t know the identity of the dead man, but from Margarethe’s description, it looks like there is a past story and our heroine had a strong reason for doing what she did. In the second strand, our heroine describes how whenever she goes out to meet her friends and comes back her husband checks her breath discreetly because he is worried about her drinking. To explain why, our heroine talks about her past, starting from her first love and how she fell in love with a young man who turned out to be from a rich family and how he broke her heart. She also describes how she met Ernst later and got married to him. There is a beautiful portrait of Irmi, her mother-in-law, who was one of my favourite characters in the book. She also talks about the troubled relationship she always had with her daughter Daniela, since Daniela’s birth, because Daniela always seems to look beyond the façade and see the real face of her mother. Margarethe talks about how, though she tolerated her life with Ernst, she didn’t really love him (though she loved Irmi) because of her memory of her first love and wondering what might have been. Then one day she meets a man at a music concert she performs in and there is an immediate spark which leads to an affair. Michael, her lover, gives her things that Ernst cannot and after a while, our heroine starts making long-term plans with him. Michael is very circumspect about it, though. Then one day, Margarethe tells Michael that they should leave their families, move to Venice and start life anew. Michael, after dithering a bit, agrees to it. Do Margarethe and Michael manage to get away from their families and start a new life? What about those who are left behind – the loyal Ernst, the loving Irmi and the troubled Daniela? What about Michael’s family? What about the second strand of the story in which our heroine kills someone deliberately? The answer to these questions and how the two strands get woven together in the end form the rest of the story.

Mrs Sartoris By Elke Schmitter

I loved ‘Mrs.Sartoris’. Elke Schmitter’s prose is smooth and elegant, like a Rolls Royce or a Merc, and there is no superfluous word. Not even one. The first half of the story is slow-paced with beautiful sentences and is a pleasure to read. In the second part, the pace picks up and it becomes a page-turning thriller. And it is still a pleasure to read. The book is just 143 pages long and Schmitter has managed to pack in so many things in those few pages. I liked the main character, the narrator Margarethe, though her moral compass doesn’t exactly point north. When she starts her affair with Michael I found myself asking her : “Margarethe sweetheart, why are you doing this? You have a wonderful, solid, loyal husband and a loving, warm and affectionate mother-in-law. Most people would kill for a mother-in-law like that. Why are you throwing all this away?” It looks like Margarethe hears my question and lament, because she gives her reply in page 99. It is passionate and convincing, but it doesn’t change my mind. I must be getting old, I think. My favourite character was Irmi, Ernst’s mother and Margarethe’s mother-in-law. When I read the description of the scene in which she makes her first appearance :


When we got engaged, Irmi had just turned fifty, and she dazzled me. She was a war widow, her only son had had one lower leg blown away in battle, her income could even be described as wretched – but she always looked as if she’d won the lottery and was just waiting for people she could share it with. The first time she saw me, she immediately embraced me and led us into the parlor for coffee s if I were the daughter of a queen. Ernst told me you are beautiful, she said as she cut into the cake, but he didn’t tell me just how beautiful you are!


I totally fell in love with her. I wish she had a bigger part to play in the story.


Ernst, Philip (Margarethe’s first love), Michael, Renate (Margarethe’s friend), Daniela all have their parts to play. Daniela’s part increases in importance towards the end of the story.


I loved ‘Mrs.Sartoris’. I loved Schmitter’s elegant prose, I loved the even pace of the story, I loved the heroine and her thoughts and questions about life and I loved Irmi.  This book is a perfect little gem. It is one of my favourite reads of the year. I can’t wait to read Elke Schmitter’s next book. I checked in Amazon and discovered one more book by her – ‘Leichte Verfehlungen’ (Minor Misdemeanours) – and one slated for release next year – ‘Veras Tochter’ (Vera’s Daughter). I hope both of them get translated into English.

Elke Schmitter

Elke Schmitter

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


Daniela was made of feathers, light as a butterfly, with red-gold down for hair, eyes that were almost transparent, more of a delicate moth than a baby.


I have always had trouble – and it’s never gotten any better – taking in a face and a name at one and the same time. I always settle for the face…


I had always thought that poetry was not worth much because it was hopelessly exaggerated; now my reservations were reversed : I thought, if that’s all the poets have to say, it’s totally inadequate, a tepid half-representation of reality.


We didn’t need things to keep us busy and I no longer had any idea how we spent our time; I remember our happiness, but I don’t remember the shape it took.


Ernst wanted a girl, which surprised me a little; I thought all men wanted a son. I’m lucky with women, he said, looking happily at both me and Irmi, and his wish was granted.


His life’s goal was to be comfortable, he was as transparent in that regard as a glass of water, and he only thought about people in any serious way if they troubled his comfort.


The animals calmed me down, in particular the huge eyes of the cows, which observed me neutrally. I wished passionately that I was seventeen again; if I were as old as Daniela, I thought, or just a little older, this scene would have an innocent charm, because everyone believes a young girl is entranced by ruminant beasts; it’s somewhat laughable in a grown woman – you don’t stand there by a trampled field in a silk dress making yourself loved with lumps of sugar.


The clock in here was never accurate, but Irmi felt that wasn’t the point, a kitchen clock was only there to make you feel comfortable and at home, and she was probably right.


In the moment when I fetched a glass of tap water and sat down beside him, as if for a great debate, and looked at him in silence, in that moment I lost the chance to make a nothing out of all this something, and make the catastrophe simply go away.


You can find other reviews of the book here.


Caroline’s (From Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) review

Stu’s (from Winstondad’s Blog) review


Have you read Elke Schmitter’s ‘Mrs.Sartoris’? What do you think about it?


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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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