Posts Tagged ‘German Literature Month 2015’

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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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.



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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I discovered Johann Peter Hebel’s book during one of my recent visits to the bookshop. It was part of a new series called ‘Little Black Classics’ brought out by Penguin. The books in this series are around fifty pages long and are collections of short stories (sometimes one short story), essays, poems and sometimes excerpts from longer works. They are of the right size and can be put in one’s pocket or purse and can be taken out to be dipped into while commuting to work or while waiting – an excellent way of introducing classics to the reader of the modern era with a waning attention span. I thought I will read it for German Literature Month.


Johann Hebel was from Basel and lived during the late 18th century and the early 19th century. He published this book in 1811.

Johann Hebel’s book is a collection of short stories. Or rather fables. Most of them are one or two pages long and the occasional one is just a passage long or three or more pages long. Some of them have explicit morals or implied morals. Many of them have surprise twists in the end.


I enjoyed reading Hebel’s book of fables. Hebel reveals himself as a master of the short-short story form – he shows what delightful magic can be woven in just a couple of pages. Some of the stories have a historical backdrop and it is amazing how much Hebel squeezes into one story – the historical backdrop, a sketch of the characters, moving the action at a reasonable pace, the surprising twist in the end. And all this in two pages. The stories are peopled by an interesting cast of characters and sometimes the good guys don’t necessarily have a happy ending. I read most of the book while having dinner at a restaurant and after reading some of the stories I was laughing out loud and some of the other guests looked at me strangely. I thought to myself – don’t blame me, blame Hebel 🙂

The only problem I had with the collection was the title. I wouldn’t have chosen such an unwieldy title. Trust Penguin’s English editors to come up with an unwieldy title like that. I would have gone with the title of a couple of other short stories – like ‘The Lightest Death Sentence’ or ‘Unexpected Reunion’.

I had many favourite stories from the collection. Here are two of them. The first one is the shortest story in the collection. Both of them made me laugh aloud.

A Short Stage

The postmaster told a Jew who drove up to his relay station with two horses, ‘From here on you’ll have to take three! It’s a hard pull uphill and the surface is still soft. But that way you’ll be there in three hours.’ The Jew asked, ‘When will I get there if I take four?’ ‘In two hours.’ ‘And if I take six?’ ‘In one hour.’ ‘I’ll tell you what,’ said the Jew after a while, ‘Harness up eight. That way I shan’t have to set off at all!’


Patience Rewarded

One day a Frenchman rode up on to a bridge over a stream, and it was so narrow there was scarcely room for two horses at once. An Englishman was riding up from the other side, and when they met in the middle neither of them would give way. ‘An Englishman does not make way for a Frenchman!’ said the Englishman. ‘Pardieu,’ said the Frenchman, ‘My horse has an English pedigree too! It’s a pity I can’t turn him round and let you have a good look at his backside in retreat! But you could atleast let that English fellow you’re riding step aside for this English mount of mine. In any case yours seems to be the junior; mine served under Louis XIV in the battle of Kieferholz, 1702!’

But the Englishman was not greatly impressed. ‘I have all the time in the world!’ he said. ‘This gives me a chance to read today’s paper until you are pleased to make way.’ So with the coolness the English are famed for he took a newspaper from his pocket and opened it up and sat on his horse on the bridge and read for an hour, and the sun didn’t look as if it would shine on this pair of fools for ever, it was going down quickly towards the mountains. An hour later when he had finished reading and was about to fold up the newspaper again he looked at the Frenchman and said, ‘Eh bien?’ But the Frenchman had kept his head too and replied, ‘Englishman, kindly lend me your paper a while, so that I can read it too until you are pleased to make way.’ Now, when the Englishman saw that his adversary was a patient man, he said, ‘Do you know what, Frenchman? Come on, I’ll make way for you!’ So the Englishman made way for the Frenchman.

Have you read Hebel’s collection of fables? What do you think about it?

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This is my second book for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.


I picked it up mainly because it is short – around 150 pages. I wasn’t sure about the book as the author’s name – I am sure you would have guessed it already – inspired the addition of a new word to the language – masochism. But discerning readers have said good things about the book and so I thought I will read it. There are worse ways of spending a few hours, I thought.


‘Venus in Furs’ is the story of Severin and Wanda, the woman he falls in love with. Their love is, of course, not of the ordinary kind. When the story starts, Severin has rented an apartment in a Carpathian resort and is doing his dilettant-ish things there – reading, writing poetry, painting – engaging in artistic pursuits without really accomplishing anything. As he puts it –

      “Well, I was nothing more than a dilettante : a dilettante in painting, in poetry, in music, and in a few more of the so-called unprofitable arts, which nowadays, however, assure their masters the income of a cabinet minister, nay, a minor potentate. And above all, I was a dilettante in life.

Until then, I had lived as I had painted and versified – that is, I never got beyond priming a canvas, beyond penning an outline, a first act, a first stanza. There are simply people who start all sorts of things and yet never finish any of them. And that was the kind of person I was.”

And then he meets Wanda. Wanda is a young widow who has rented the upstairs apartment. Severin sees her as the embodiment of the Greek goddess Venus. He falls in love with her and is obsessed with her. They meet, they talk, they get to know each other. Wanda likes Severin too. She says she loves him. Severin wants to marry her. But Wanda is a free spirit. She says that it is hard to love one person forever because the human heart is fickle and things change across time and so they should enjoy their relationship for a year and see how things go and think about marriage after that. Severin says that if they can’t get married now, he should atleast be permitted to be her slave. Wanda warns him against it. Severin is insistent. After a lot of conversation, going back and forth, they decide on it. Severin signs a contract to be Wanda’s slave. He hopes that it will tie him to Wanda for life. And though their relationship will be that of unequals, he hopes that Wanda will be his lover for life. Of course, things go sideways after that. And they go in a way that both of them don’t expect. As Severin says later –

      “Everything that had occurred so far seemed like child’s play; but now the situation was serious, horribly serious.

I sensed catastrophe. I saw it before me, I could hold it in my hands; but I lacked the courage to face it, my strength was broken. And to be honest : it wasn’t the pains I dreaded, or the sufferings that could sweep over me, or the abuse that might lie in store for me.

What I felt was fear – a fear of losing the woman whom I loved almost fanatically; and this fear was so violent, so crushing that I suddenly burst out sobbing like a child.”

Well, you should read the story to find out what happened and how it all ended.

‘Venus in Furs’ is a story of love and obsession. On the surface, it could be regarded as the story of a BDSM relationship, with whipping, torture and a proper dominatrix thrown in, but that is not the whole story. As Roland Barthes said, a story’s meaning is not just what the writer intends. It is also the meaning that a reader gives to the story based on her / his life experiences and intellectual contemplation. That way, the reader plays an equal part in the creation of literary art, adding rich meaning and hidden depth to the story. (That is what Cliffs Notes do after all, don’t they – adding meaning to the story which the writer never intended?) Looking at it from that perspective, ‘Venus in Furs’ could also be a story of unconditional love, in which a person abandons everything he has, including his freedom, for his beloved, and in return hopes that she may love him back in the way she deems fit. This book shows one of the paths that such an unconditional love can take. Pop culture today makes us believe that we should let our guard down, we should love unconditionally, we should take our heart and give it to the person we love making us vulnerable and open to deep hurt, because when that kind of unconditional love gets reciprocated back, then it is one of the most beautiful, glorious things in life that one can experience. This story shows the other side of that unconditional love, the darker side. It shows what happens when the reciprocation takes a different shape and form and doesn’t even resemble love for the most part. And maybe, that is why, today we are all incapable of unconditional love. We have checks and balances in every kind of relationship we have. We assert our rights. We learn to say ‘No’. We feel that if we let our guard down, we might end up becoming a doormat, end up being trampled over. It is possible that we might enjoy being a doormat and being trampled upon, like Severin does for a while – it increases his love and passion for Wanda – but the story shows that this joy doesn’t last. Maybe too much of anything is not necessarily good. Even love has to come in small dollops. It should be evenly tempered and not belong to the extremes. Like Aristotle’s golden mean. We might love pop culture and its depiction of unconditional love, but we probably believe more in Sacher-Masoch’s vision of it and we guard ourselves against that. That is my own take on it, as a reader.

One last thing I want to say about the book is that in storytelling style, in the topics which were covered in conversation, it resembled a Russian novel more than a German one. At many places, I thought I was probably reading a Russian novel – maybe one by Turgenev or Dostoevsky. It was a strange feeling.

Here are some of my favourite passages from the book. (There is no whipping, bondage, dominatrix happenings in these passages. For that, you have to read the book.)

      We were in a different world, a cheerful, sensual, radiant world. Nor did the landscape have any of the solemnity, the melancholy of ours. Far and wide, to the last white villas scattered in the pale green mountains, there was no spot that the sun did not put in the brightest light. The people were less earnest than we, and might think less, but they all looked happy.

Supposedly, dying is easier in the south.

I now sensed that there are such things as beauty without thorns and sensuality without torment.

The painting was marvelous; it was a portrait, an incomparable likeness, and it also seemed to depict an ideal, for the colors were so intense, so miraculous, so diabolical I might say.

The painter had simply painted all his torment, his adoration, his malediction into the painting.

Have you read ‘Venus in Furs’? What do you think about it?

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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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