Posts Tagged ‘Contemporary Swiss Literature’

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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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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