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Posts Tagged ‘German Literature Month’

I discovered Arno Schmidt’sBottom’s Dream‘ a few years back when the English translation came out. Someone in Twitter, probably the publishers, wrote about it. It looked like a chunkster and it was translated by one of my favourite translators John E. Woods – I loved his translations of Patrick Süskind’sPerfume‘ and ‘The Pigeon‘ – and so I decided to get it.

When the postal courier arrived, I was surprised, because he carried the package on his shoulder! It was huge! When I took it from him, I nearly dropped it! It was that heavy! I discovered later that it weighed around six kilos (if you are into pounds, it is a little more than thirteen pounds). It was bigger than any other book I had in my collection – ‘War and Peace‘ and ‘Les Miserables‘ paled in comparison. It was so huge and massive that its immensity was intimidating. It was also the heaviest. It was next to impossible to hold it in your hand and read. It has to be kept on a table or a special book holder if one wanted to read it. It was also the most expensive single-volume novel that I had got till that time – it cost me the equivalent of fifty dollars. (It trades on Amazon at 855 dollars now, so not a bad investment 😁)

More facts emerged later. I discovered that only 2000 copies of the book were published, 1000 for the American market and 1000 for the rest of the world. I was able to get hold of one of the rest-of-the-world copies. There is no Kindle edition – the estate of Arno Schmidt refused to approve that. It was published by Dalkey Archive, who have been publishing beautiful works by lesser known authors for the past forty years. The publishers and the writer’s estate seem to have adopted a publishing philosophy from an earlier century – publish limited copies of the book, and that’s it. The book is out-of-print now and I hope existing copies cost a fortune when I get old – I hope to get rich with this.

The book is produced in a classic German (or rather European) style. That is there is no introduction, no analysis of the book or its place in literary history. The book proper starts on the first page. There are no distractions. No potted biography of the author, no description of the translator, nothing. It is you and the book, 1500 pages of it, and nothing in between. The translator seems to have taken pity on the readers and so has sneaked in a one-and-half page afterword in the end, which doesn’t say much. There is a short description on the back of the slipcase through which we discover that the book is about Edgar Allan Poe, Shakespeare, the art of translating. Otherwise we can’t fathom anything about the book.

I know only three other people who have got the book – Melissa from ‘The Book Binder’s Daughter’, Tony from ‘Messenger’s Booker (and more)’ and one more friend from Twitter. Only Tony has read a significant part of the book, I think. You can find his first post on the book here. Tony’s posts are encyclopaedic and an education to read. I don’t think there is anyone who has read the book fully. I see many readers have reviewed the book on Amazon. But I doubt whether any of these readers have read the book fully. Anyone can write a review of any book. I am very good at it – I can write a review of any book I haven’t read. If I can do it, anyone can do it. I will believe it only when I see it.

I thought for this year’s edition of ‘German Literature Month‘, I’ll read a few pages of ‘Bottom’s Dream‘. I thought that would be a great way of celebrating this 10th edition of GLM. I read the first three pages. I couldn’t understand anything. Only a vague inkling of what it was about. But it was nice to read the first three pages. I am sharing them here. Go ahead, do read them. And tell me whether you can understand what they say.

This is my last post for the 10th year celebrations of ‘German Literature Month‘ hosted by Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’. I couldn’t read much this year, but I had fun participating and sharing thoughts on my favourite German writers and poems and attempting to read Arno Schmidt’s magnum opus. Thanks so much to Caroline and Lizzy for hosting GLM. It is my favourite reading event of the year and I can’t wait for next year’s GLM already.

Have you tried reading Arno Schmidt’s book? What do you think about it? Did you participate in German Literature Month this year? Which were your favourite reads?

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I wrote this as part of the celebrations for the tenth edition of German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’.

Marlen Haushofer is my favourite German author. She was Austrian and wrote in German. I first discovered her through Caroline’s (from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’) post about the film adaptation of ‘The Wall’. I got inspired and got the book, and when I read it, I didn’t want it to end. When I finished reading the book, it became my alltime favourite book, at that time. It is still one of my alltime favourite books. It is one of my treasured possessions and a book I refuse to lend to anyone. If you are curious about the plot, it goes like this. A forty-something old woman goes on a holiday with her cousin to the countryside. She goes to take a nap in their cabin. She wakes up to an eerie silence. She discovers that she has been separated by a transparent wall from the rest of the world and everyone on the other side is dead. She has a dog, a cat and a cow for company. This is revealed in the first few pages. What happens to this one human character and three animal characters is revealed in the next 250 pages. We would think that with just one human character, the story would have nowhere to go, but what Haushofer does with this minimalist cast is absolutely magical. I’ll let you read for yourself and find out what happened. After I read ‘The Wall‘, I wanted to read all of Haushofer’s books. But there were just two more of her books available in English translation – ‘The Loft‘ and ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘. I got them and read them across the years. One would except that after reading a profound book like ‘The Wall‘ one would almost experience a sophomore slump while reading the next Haushofer book, but when I read ‘The Loft‘, I found it beautiful in its own way and it had one of my favourite lines, which goes like this –

“I hate that alarm…I am convinced this wretched thing is slowly killing us – a fraction every day. Merely waiting for it to start ringing is in itself a torment…Before the day can slip noiselessly into the room it is shattered to pieces by this vulgar rattling noise.”

I kept ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘ aside for a long time, because I didn’t want to read my last Haushofer book in a hurry. Sometime back I felt that I had waited for too long and I read that too. It is a beautiful coming-of-age story and one of my favourite coming-of-age stories. If I hadn’t read ‘The Wall‘ before, ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘ would have been my favourite Haushofer book. It still is one of my alltime favourite books.

I don’t know much about Marlen Haushofer. Information about her is hard to come by on the internet. The Wikipedia page in English devoted to her has just the basic facts about her. She must have been well-known in her time in the German-speaking world or in Austria atleast, but after her death in 1970, she seems to have slipped into obscurity. She came again into prominence and burned brightly like star, briefly, a few years back when ‘The Wall‘ was adapted into a film which won lots of acclaim. Since then she has slipped back into obscurity again. I know only a few people who have read ‘The Wall‘ and half of them are friends to whom I recommended it to. ‘The Wall‘ is one of the great masterpieces of twentieth century literature. It deserves more readers.

Though we don’t know much about Marlen Haushofer, she reveals herself through her books. Atleast, I think so. If we try peeking behind the beautiful sentences, we find someone who is warm and affectionate, introverted, and who loves animals. How can someone who wrote this –

“The laurel is flowering. I don’t pick any because I’m afraid the plant might cry out in pain and I wouldn’t hear it. True, I don’t remember ever hearing laurel cry out, but everything is possible, and every sound is possible to a person who cannot hear.” (From ‘The Loft‘)

or this –

“That summer I quite forgot that Lynx was a dog and I was a human being. I knew it, but it had lost any distinctive meaning. Lynx too had changed. Since I’d been spending so much time with him he had grown calmer, and didn’t seem constantly afraid that I might vanish into thin air as soon as he went off for five minutes. Thinking about it today, I believe that was the only big fear in his dog’s life, being abandoned on his own. I too had learned a lot more, and understood almost all his movements and noises. Now, at last, there was a silent understanding between us.” (From ‘The Wall‘)

be anything but warm and affectionate, and a beautiful soul?

I am glad that Marlen Haushofer walked on earth once upon a time. I am glad that she was a beautiful soul. I am so happy that she wrote these beautiful, exquisite masterpieces. I wish our times had overlapped. I would have loved to meet her. But I am glad that she lives through her books. As they say about Beethoven and Mozart, that they didn’t die, but they became music, Marlen Haushofer didn’t die, she became her stories.

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I discovered Erich Kästner through the book ‘The End of Loneliness‘, in which two of the characters watch a film adaptation of an Erich Kästner book. So I did some research and discovered that ‘Emil and the Detectives‘ is Erich Kästner’s most famous book. I read it in one breath today.

Emil lives with his mother in Neustadt. During the holidays, his mother sends him by train to Berlin to spend the holidays with his grandmother and aunt and her family. Emil’s mother gives him some money which she asks him to hand over to his grandmother. She asks him to be careful about the money. Emil’s fellow travellers in the train are quite friendly with him. At some point all of them get off the train except one. At some point Emil falls asleep. When he wakes up he realizes that the money is not there with him. He suspects the last traveller who was there with him in the compartment. Luckily, he sees that man get off the train at the next station and follows him. A lot of interesting things happen on the way as Emil makes new friends, plays detective with them and tries to catch the thief. Whether they are able to do that and get back the money is told in the rest of the story.

Emil and the Detectives‘ is a charming story. It is very engaging, fast-paced and filled with wonderful characters and events. I wish I had read it when I was a child. I would have loved it more. Reading it as a grown-up, one of the things I loved about the book was Emil’s impression of the big city when he first lands up in Berlin. Erich Kästner makes the Berlin of his time come alive through his descriptions as we see the exciting scenes of the big city through Emil’s eyes.

I loved this particular passage which contrasts the warmth and friendliness of a small town with the remoteness and aloofness of a big city.

“No one seemed interested, one way or the other. A strange man had paid his fare, but had gone on reading again without even asking why he had no money. Emil felt very small among them all, in that big, busy city. Nobody cared about his having no money, or that he didn’t know where he was going. There were four million people in Berlin at that moment, and not one of them cared what was happening to Emil Tischbein. No one has time for other people’s troubles in a city. They’ve all troubles enough of their own. They may listen for a moment, and perhaps say how sorry they are, but they are probably thinking, “Oh, for goodness’ sake, don’t bother me about it!” It was awful to feel so alone, and Emil wondered what would happen to him.”

I also loved this passage about the excitement and the awe and the surprise that a person from a small town feels when they first see a big city.

“It was getting dark, and the illuminated signs began to flash on and off. Trains thundered – by on the overhead railway. Other trains rumbled beneath them on the underground. The noise in the street of all the passing trams, buses, cars and motorbikes sounded to Emil like some crazy orchestra playing wildly. From a nearby café came the strains of dance music, and people were crowding into the cinemas round the square for the last performances. To Emil it was all strange and tremendously exciting. He almost forgot how he came to be there, and about the seven pounds which had been stolen.”

I enjoyed reading ‘Emil and the Detectives‘. I want to read more of Erich Kästner’s work. Have you read this book? What do you think about it?

I think this is my last book for this year’s German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. I made a modest plan this time around, but I couldn’t stick to it. I read only one of the planned books, tried participating in a readalong but could finish only one-third of that book, and then tried reading a thousand-page book but got stuck after a hundred pages. But the good news is that I managed to read four books and they were all different – one of them was classic literary fiction, another was contemporary literary fiction, one was YA, another was a children’s book. I loved all these four books. I feel sad that this year’s German Literature Month is already over, and I can’t wait for next year’s edition to arrive.

Did you participate in German Literature Month? What did you read?

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I was looking for a contemporary German book to read for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, when one of my friends recommended Benedict Wells‘ ‘The End of Loneliness‘. How can we resist a book with such a beautiful title? I started reading it a couple of days back and couldn’t put it down till I finished it.

The story told in ‘The End of Loneliness‘ goes like this. Jules is in the hospital after an accident. When he regains consciousness, he discovers that he has been in a coma for a couple of days. He looks back on his life, on the events and the people, which led him to his present situation in the hospital. We get a peek into his childhood, we get to know about his beautiful sister and his nerdy brother who are both elder to him, we get to know about his loving, affectionate parents. Then something suddenly happens, the beautiful tranquility is shattered and that is the end of life as he knows it. Jules is in a new situation now, and things are quiet for a while, and then beautiful things start happening. But then do beautiful, happy things last forever, or is the next disaster just around the corner? As the grown-up Jules says at one point –

“Life is not a zero-sum game. It owes us nothing, and things just happen the way they do. Sometimes they’re fair and everything makes sense; sometimes they’re so unfair we question everything. I pulled the mask off the face of Fate, and all I found beneath it was chance.”

Is this true? Is it all chance? Or do things even out and can we find happiness in the end?

Well, I can’t tell you more about the plot, or about any of the characters, or what happened, or how Jules ended up in the hospital. No spoilers here. You have to read the book to find out more.

The End of Loneliness‘ is a beautiful book about family, about brothers and sisters, about parents and children, about growing up, about friendship, about love. There is happiness and heartbreak in the book. There are beautiful sentences and passages. These are surprises. I loved all the characters in the book. Every one of them. Each one of them is beautifully sculpted, each one is beautiful, flawed, imperfect, amazing, real. Some of them speak beautiful lines. Some of them do beautiful things. Two of my favourites were Jules’ sister Liz and his best friend Alva. Liz speaks one of my favourite lines in the book –

“All these nihilists and cynics are really just cowards. They act as if everything’s meaningless because that means ultimately there’s nothing to lose. Their attitude seems unassailable and superior, but inside it’s worthless…The alternative to the concept of life and death is the void – would it really be better if this world didn’t exist at all? Instead, we live, make art, love, observe, suffer, laugh and are happy. We all exist in a million different ways so that there is no void, and the price we pay for that is death.”

In another part of the book, Liz says this –

“But there’s no point in living like that. Everything’s over so quickly and you can’t hold on to anything. All you can do is be.”

When we first meet Liz, we discover that she is a kind of party girl, but as we get to know her better, we discover that she has unsuspected depths and there is more to her than meets the eye.

Alva is amazing, of course. You have read the book though, to discover more about her. Also Marty, Jules’ nerdy brother, Toni, Jules’ and Marty’s friend, Elena, Marty’s wife, and many other characters, even the minor ones, they are all wonderful.

I loved ‘The End of Loneliness‘. It is one of my favourite reads of the year. I can’t wait to read more books by Benedict Wells.

Have you read ‘The End of Loneliness‘? What do you think about it?

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I was looking for a contemporary German book to read, for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. I was thinking about it when I discovered Wolfgang Herrndorf’sTschick‘. I got it and read the first page and then I couldn’t stop reading.

The story told in ‘Tschick‘ goes like this. Mike Klingenberg is fourteen years old and he is the narrator of the story. At the beginning of the story we find Mike in the hospital. There seem to be police with him too. We wonder why. Mike tells us what happened. Mike is a loner at school and doesn’t have many (or rather any) friends. The girl he likes, Tatiana, doesn’t know that he exists. Mike is good at some things – he is an ace high-jumper and a wonderful artist – but his talent is not noticed. A new boy called Tschick arrives in school one day. He seems to have a complex background and so everyone including Mike ignores him. At some point, something brings these two together and somehow they embark on a long road trip in an old stolen (or shall we say ‘borrowed’) car. What happens after that – the amazing adventures they have and the fascinating people they meet and how Mike ends up in the hospital and what happens after that – is narrated in the rest of the story.

I loved ‘Tschick‘. Mike is a wonderful narrator with an original, charming voice, a cool style, a wonderful sense of humour, and speaks his mind and doesn’t mince words. The pages flew because I loved the narrator’s voice. He made me remember all the great teenage / young narrators that I have encountered in some of my favourite novels, like ‘Treasure Island‘, ‘Kidnapped‘, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird‘, ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time‘, ‘Unhooking the Moon‘, ‘The Pull of Gravity‘, ‘The Fault in Our Stars‘. Tschick, after whom the novel is named, is a fascinating character, and is one of the two main characters alongwith Mike. Tschick is quiet, but once we get to know him, we discover that he is cool, wise, is filled with surprises and there is more to him than meets the eye. The Mike–Tschick friendship is one of the most charming friendships that I have encountered in any story. The book is very engaging and fast-paced and there is no word wasted. The ending is beautiful but I can’t tell you what happened – you have to read the book yourself and find out.

I loved ‘Tschick‘ so much that I wanted to read more books by Wolfgang Herrndorf. When I went and did some research, I discovered that this was his first book which he published when he was forty-five, and it was a runaway bestseller. But tragically, he was diagnosed with an incurable form of brain tumour by that time, and he wrote just one more book called ‘Sand‘ soon after that and died three years later. He just had a three-year literary career. He burned bright like a comet, lighted up millions of readers’ hearts, and was gone before they could blink. It was heartbreaking to read. Why do good people always die young?

A small observation on the title. The German title of the book is ‘Tschick‘. The title of the English translation is ‘Why We Took the Car‘. I hate this modern British practice of changing the title of translated works and trying to summarize the book through the title. So I am sticking to the German title here. I like it more.

Tschick‘ is one of my favourite books of the year. I am glad it was a bestseller and got many accolades – it deserved every bit of that. I can’t wait to read Wolfgang Herrndorf’s ‘Sand‘ now.

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

“It took two hours to reach the very top, but it was worth it. The view looked like a really great postcard. There was a giant wooden cross at the highest point, and below that a little cabin. The entire cabin was covered with carvings. We sat down there and read some of the letters and numbers cut into the wood: CKH 4/23/61, SONNY ’86, HARTMANN 1923. The oldest one we could find was: ANSELM WAIL 1903. Old letters cut into old, dark wood. And then the view and the warm summer air and the scent of hay wafting up from the valleys below. Tschick pulled out a pocketknife and started carving. As we talked and basked in the sun and watched Tschick carve, I kept thinking about the fact that in a hundred years we’d all be dead. Like Anselm Wail was dead. His family was all dead too. His parents were dead, his children were dead, everyone who ever knew him was dead. And if he ever made anything or built anything or left anything behind, it was probably dead as well — destroyed, blown away by two world wars — and the only thing left of Anselm Wail was his name carved in a piece of wood. Why had he carved it there? Maybe he’d been on a road trip, like us. Maybe he’d stolen a car or a carriage or a horse or whatever they had back then and rode around having fun. But whatever it was, it would never again be of interest to anyone because there was nothing left of his fun, of his life, of anything. The only people who would ever know anything at all about Anselm Wail were the people who climbed this mountain. And the same thing would be true of us.”

“I want to talk to my lawyer. That’s the sentence I probably need to say. It’s the right sentence in the right situation, as everybody knows from watching TV. And it’s easy to say: I want to talk to my lawyer. But they’d probably die laughing. Here’s the problem: I have no idea what this sentence means. If I say I want to talk to my lawyer and they ask me, “Who do you want to talk to? Your lawyer?” what am I supposed to answer? I’ve never seen a lawyer in my life, and I don’t even know what I need one for. I don’t know if there’s a difference between a lawyer and an attorney. Or an attorney general. I guess they’re like judges except on my side. I guess they know a lot more about the law than I do. But I guess pretty much everyone in the room knows more about the law than I do. First and foremost the policemen. And I could ask them.”

“It’s a little like those mafia movies, when there’s a long silence before one gangster answers another, and they just stare at each other. “Hey!” A minute of silence. “Look me in the eyes!” Five minutes of silence. In regular life that would be stupid. But when you’re in the mafia, it’s not.”

Have you read ‘Tschick‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Max Frisch’sAn Answer from the Silence‘ while browsing in the bookshop. I am happy and excited that in these days when we discover most books through the internet, it is still possible to visit the bookshop, spend sometime browsing, and discover a beautiful book. This is the first book I read for this year’s German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

The story told in Max Frisch’s book goes like this. The main character, whose name we don’t know, is staying in an inn near the mountains. He is thirty years old. He is passing through and he is trying to climb one of the nearby cliffs. We learn that he feels that he hasn’t accomplished much, has drifted from one dream to another, and finally decided that he is going to attempt climbing a cliff which no one has ever done before, and if he succeeds, he feels he would have accomplished something and not just lived a regular, mundane life. And then he meets a woman at the inn. And they begin a wonderful conversation. What happens after that and how their friendship evolves and whether this man climbs the cliff and finds the meaning of life is told in the rest of the story.

An Answer from the Silence‘ is a slim book at around a hundred pages. It is also a beautiful book. It is one of the great introvert novels like Marlen Haushofer’sThe Wall‘, Alexis M.Smith’sGlaciers‘, Robert Seethaler’sA Whole Life‘, Peter Stamm’sUnformed Landscape‘, Muriel Barbery’sThe Elegance of the Hedgehog‘ and Rabih Alameddine’sAn Unnecessary Woman‘, in which the main character lives a rich inner life and contemplates on some deep questions. It is the kind of book I love. There are so many beautiful passages in Frisch’s book that I couldn’t stop highlighting. The character of Irene, the woman who starts a conversation with our mountain-climbing main character, is so beautifully depicted, and she was my favourite character in the book. Max Frisch’s prose is beautiful and flows serenely like a river. There are beautiful descriptions of the mountains and nature. One of my favourite descriptions went like this :

“Outside there is no light visible that has been lit by human hand. There are just the stars glittering above the mountains and it’s bright, so that you can even see the blades of grass on the ground nearby, almost as bright as day, though it’s a different gleam, a lifeless gleam pouring over things, dull and without shadow, very strange, as if one were on another planet where there’s no life, on a planet which, with all its rocks and ice, is not made for man, however indescribably beautiful it may be.”

The book also asks some deep, profound questions on life which are relevant even today. This book came out in 1937, during the time when Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann were still active, and so it is not surprising that it asks some profound questions. I haven’t read a Max Frisch book before and I am surprised that he is not that well known today, because this book is really good, as good as the best ones of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. Frisch seems to have led an interesting life too – he was a writer and journalist, but couldn’t pay his bills, and so went and studied architecture and became an architect, and while he was in the army during the Second World War, he started writing again and he continued his successful architecture practice alongwith his writing after the war. It seems he was also in a relationship with my favourite, Ingeborg Bachmann. I want to read more about him and I want to read more of his books.

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

“It’s just like a relay race, he laughs, a relay race with no finishing tape; they hand life over to us and say, ‘Go on now, run with it, for twenty or seventy years.’ And you run, you don’t look at what you have in your hand, you just run and hand it on. And what, he says, if one of us asks what the aim of it is? You could be nasty and grab one of them by the sleeve and take him to one side and when he opens his hand – nothing. And that’s what we’re running for, one generation after another? It’s nothing but a circus, round and round in a circle…”

“Why do we not follow our longing? Why is it? Why do we bind and gag it everyday, when we know that it’s truer and finer than all the things that are stopping us, the things people call morality and virtue and fidelity and which are not life, simply not life, not a life that’s true, great, worth living! Why don’t we shake them off? Why don’t we live when we know we’re here just this one time, just one single, unrepeatable time in this unutterably magnificent world?”

Have you read Max Frisch’sAn Answer from the Silence‘? What do you think about it?

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November is the time for one of my favourite reading events of the year – German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. I have been participating in it since the first edition, and it is an exciting time of the year for me, because I have discovered so many wonderful German and Germanic authors through this event.

The exciting part of any bookish event is making a planned reading list. This is what my planned book stack looks like.

In the picture

(1) An Answer from the Silence by Max Frisch – Frisch is a new author that I discovered through bookshop browsing. This book is slim, at around a 100 pages, Frisch is Swiss, and the story is set in the mountains – an irresistible combination.

(2) Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig – Stefan Zweig is one of my alltime favourite writers. I think I have read all his novellas and stories. This is the only novel he wrote. I was keeping it aside for a rainy day. I think that rainy day has arrived.

(3) Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler – I have wanted to read Koestler’s book ever since I read an excerpt from it. I can’t wait to get started.

(4) Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – I had planned to read Goethe’s classic many times. Maybe this is my lucky year.

(5) Before the Feast by Saša Stanišić – Stanisic won the German Book Prize this year. That novel has not been translated yet. So I thought I’ll read this one, which is one of his early books.

(6) Sebastian Dreaming by George Trakl – a short poetry collection that I have wanted to read for a while.

Not in the picture

(7) Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin – One of the great classics set in Weimar Germany. I am participating in the readalong hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.

This time I decided to make a slim reading list, because I have had a hectic reading time during the past three months, and so I wanted to take it easy this month and read slowly in a more relaxed way. I am hoping though that I can add a few more books to this list, if I finish reading these books earlier than anticipated.

I can’t wait to get started with my first book. Are you participating in German Literature Month? What are you reading?

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I discovered ‘Homecoming’ by Bernhard Schlink a few years back during one of my random browsing sessions at the bookstore. Schlink was more famous for his book ‘The Reader’ which was made into a movie of the same name and which won Kate Winslet her first Oscar. ‘Homecoming’ appealed to me because of its bookish cover and the plot. I thought I will read it for German Literature Month. It was gripping from the first page to the last. I finished reading it today. Here is what I think.

What I think

‘Homecoming’ is the story of a boy, Peter Debauer, who discovers a few pages in his grandparents’ home which have the story of the homecoming of a German soldier who escaped a Russian POW camp after the Second World War. But, unfortunately, the ending of the story is missing and the boy is not able to find it even after searching for it in his grandparents’ home. In later years, after the boy has grown up, he doesn’t forget this story and later in adult life, he resumes his search for the story ending. He discovers that the house described in the book resembles a real house and starts his investigation there. He also wants to know more about his mysterious father, who is supposedly killed in the Second World War and about whom his mother is silent. He goes on a quest to find the story ending and the secret behind the disappearance of his own father. The shocking secrets that Peter discovers and how the two story arcs come together form the rest of the book.

 

I loved ‘Homecoming’. I loved it first for its bookish cover. I also loved it for the pleasant font and the font spacing. The generous font spacing made me read faster than usual and I couldn’t believe the rollicking pace at which the story moved. I am not able to tell whether this was because of the font and the spacing or whether it was because the story was fast-paced. Despite the rollicking pace, the story didn’t shy away from complex ideas, like the distinction and deep connection between good and evil, the deconstruction of law and the complex nature of love. Bernhard Schlink also doesn’t write those page long sentences which German writers are fond of, but writes shorter sentences, though some of them are a few lines long. (I don’t know whether this was truly the case, or whether it was because the translator did it that way. Sometimes, in a translated work of literature, we don’t know how much of the translation owes to the original writer and how much to the translator.) I think this must have also contributed to the fast pace of the book.

 

Starting from the first paragraph which went like this :

 

When I was young, I spent the summer holidays with my grandparents in Switzerland. My mother would take me to the station and put me on the train, and when I was lucky I could stay put and arrive six hours later at the platform where Grandfather would be waiting for me. When I was less lucky, I had to change trains at the border. Once I took the wrong train and sat there in tears until a friendly conductor dried them and after a few stations put me on another train, entrusting me to another conductor, who then in similar fashion handed me on to the next, so that I was transported to my goal by a whole relay of conductors.

 

the book gripped me till the end. I liked the description of the narrator’s time with his grandparents during summer, how rural Switzerland looked like, how his grandparents loved literature and poetry and history and how the narrator fell in love for the first time.

 

Schlink paints precise, interesting portraits of different characters in the book and I liked that aspect of the novel very much. For example, here is a description of Peter’s grandparents.

 

I don’t know whether it was a happy marriage; I didn’t even know whether it makes sense to speak of the happiness of their marriage or whether they ever thought about it. They lived a life together, took the good with the bad, respected each other, relied on each other. I never once saw them have a serious argument, though they often teased and even poked fun at each other. They took pleasure in being together and showing themselves together, he the dignified personage he had become in his old age, she the beautiful woman she had remained.

 

The descriptions of his mother, by the narrator, Peter, are some of the most interesting passages in the book. Here is one :

 

She would have been a good doctor : she was precise, she had a good eye for what mattered and what did not, and she kept on top of things. What she lacked in warmth, she would have made up for in vigilance and commitment : her patients might not have liked her, but they would certainly have felt they were in good hands.

 

And another :

 

Sometimes I brought all the ingredients and cooked. My mother did not like to cook and was not good at it : I was raised on bread, cold cuts, and warmed-up canned foods. Seldom did I see her so happy and gay, so girlish, as when I was at work at the stove and she was doing some unimportant task for me or was simply on her first glass of champagne.

 

And another :

 

My mother was good at making me feel guilty. It was the way she brought me up to be good in school, to do my house and garden chores, to deliver my magazines on time, and to see to the needs of my friends. The privilege of getting an education, living in a nice house with a nice garden, having the money to pay for necessities (let along extras), enjoying the company of friends and of a loving mother – all this had to be earned; moreover, it had to be earned with a smile : my mother had solved the conflict between duty and desire by decreeing that I was to desire to do my duty.

 

In another place, Peter describes his relationship with his mother in a beautiful passage. It goes like this :

 

The relationship between single mothers and only sons has a bit of the married couple to it. This does not make it a happy one : it can be just as loveless and aggressive, just as much of a power struggle as a marriage. As in marriage, though in its own way, there is no third party or parties – no father, no siblings – to drain off the tension that inevitably arises in so intimate an association. The tension does not truly dissipate until the son leaves the mother, and often the dissipation takes the form of a nonrelationship much like that of a divorced couple. It may also turn into a lively, intimate, tension-free relationship, and after years of going through the motions with my mother – seldom making trouble and always a bit bored – I was looking forward to our week together as a promise of better things to come.

 

One of the interesting things that made me smile in the book was that for quite a while, we don’t know the narrator’s name. I had crossed nearly one-third of the book and still I didn’t know the narrator’s name. I wanted to find out how long the author was going to carry on with this game and whether he will ever reveal the narrator’s name in the end. Then suddenly there is a scene, where the narrator meets the heroine, Barbara, and he says ‘My name is Debauer. Peter Debauer.

 

One of my favourite parts of the book was the depiction of the relationship between Peter and Barbara. It starts with how they first meet when Peter is trying to discover the ending of the story, and then it describes how they fall in love, Barbara’s complex background, how their relationship goes through ups and downs and whether they get back together in the end. It is a delightful subplot to the overall theme of the book and I liked it more than the main story. Barbara was one of my favourite characters in the story, starting from how she looked, the way she smiled and what she said. Some of my most favourite passages in the book were about the love between Peter and Barbara. For example there is this conversation which is one of my favourites :

 

‘Is it important to you that we be married? It makes no difference to me.’

      ‘Well, it does to me.’

      ‘Are you afraid we’d lose each other the way we did the last time?’

      ‘Let’s say I learned then how strong the bonds of matrimony can be. I think you really loved me, yet you stood by your husband.’

      ‘Not because he was my husband. He fought for me; you sulked.’ The dimple over her eyebrow had come out, and her voice was hard. ‘Have you forgotten? Have you forgotten that I called you, called you again and again? That I stood in front of your door and knocked and shouted? That I wrote to you? But you preferred to make a victim of yourself, the poor man ill used by the evil woman.’

 

And this conversation :

 

‘I love this place. It’s a good place. I love its big, bright rooms, I love the balcony, I used to take my nap on, even when it rained. You can hear the rain in the trees, hear the birds singing, and the air is cool, but you’ve got a roof over your head and you pull the warm blanket up over your ears and you feel safe. Try it sometime.’

      I thought of the daily nap I took during the first few summers I spent with my grandparents. If it was warm enough, I could take it on the balcony, and when it rained they covered me with a blanket, just as Barbara had described. How could I have forgotten?

 

And this beautiful description :

 

I was too happy with Barbara, happy to wake up with her, shower with her, happy that we would brush our teeth and hair together, that she would put on her makeup while I shaved. I loved our breakfast conversations about the shopping to be done, the errands to be run, the plans for the evening; I loved coming home to her, seeing her get up from her desk, feeling her arms around my neck or, if I came home first, looking forward to seeing her and spending the evening with her, whether at home or on the town, and then preparing for bed together and knowing that if I happened to wake up in the night I would hear her breathing and it would take nothing at all to touch her or snuggle up to her or wake her. Sometimes she teased me, saying, ‘What a bourgeois match I’ve made. You’d be happy just to stay at home and read, listen to music, watch television, and chat, plus an occasional promenade along the river.’ But she would laugh as she said it. ‘What do you mean?’ I would say, laughing along with her. ‘I like walking up the hill too.’

      Had she wanted me to, I would have taken her every night to a movie or play or concert or to see friends. But it wasn’t staying home that I enjoyed; it was the routine of love.

 

When Peter’s and Barbara’s relationship went through ups and downs, I, alternatively, rejoiced and panicked. My heart went through a rollercoaster ride and I dreaded what will happen in the end, because I really liked both of them and wanted them to end up together and happy. Schlink kept me in tenterhooks till the end, before I could discover whether they ended up happy.

 

The story is structured like Homer’s epic ‘The Odyssey’ – both the story that Peter reads and his own quest for the ending of that story and the secret behind his father’s disappearance.

 

One of the things I noticed in the story was the way time lapses. Sometimes a day or an hour is described in many pages. Sometimes whole years and decades lapse, in a few lines, in the blink of an eye. At one point of time, the narrator has passed out of university and is working with a publisher. He is having problems in his love life and his quest for the secrets he is searching for is not getting anywhere. At that point, I thought he must be in his late twenties. Then suddenly the narrator says that he is forty-five! I didn’t see that the years have passed by in a blink. I saw the whole story in a different light, then.

 

There were beautiful passages in the book on history, deconstruction, law and ethical dilemmas. Like this :

 

History is clearly in no hurry. It respect daily activities like work, shopping, cooking, and eating; it understands that bureaucratic processes, sporting events, and get-togethers with family and friends must go on. Presumably the same rules applied to the French Revolution : it is all very well to storm the Bastille on July 14, but on July 15 the cobbler must return to his last, the tailor to his needle; they must make up for lost time. After a morning at the guillotine, back to nailing and sewing. What is there to do all day at a Bastille already stormed? Or a Wall already scaled?

 

And this :

 

I learned that deconstruction is the separation of a text from what the author meant it to say and its transformation into what the reader makes of it; I learned that it went even further to reject the notion of reality in favor of the texts we write and read about reality…As far as I could make out, if texts are not about what the author meant to say but what the reader makes of them, then the reader, not the author, is responsible for the text; if reality is not the world out there but the text we write and read about it, then the responsibility for murder falls on neither the real murderers nor their victims – they having lost their existence – but on their contemporaries who lodge the complaints and prosecute the plaintiffs.

 

And this :

 

What we take for reality is merely a text, what we take for texts merely interpretations. Reality and texts are therefore what we make of them. History has no goal : there is no progress, no promise of rise after fall, no guarantee of victory for the strong or justice for the weak. We can interpret it as if it had a goal, and there is nothing objectionable in that, because we must always ‘act as if’ – as if reality were more than text, as if the author were speaking to us in the text, as if good and evil, right and wrong, truth and lies actually existed, and as if the institutions of law actually functioned. We have the choice of either droning back what had been droned into us or deciding for ourselves what we want to make of the world, who we want to be in it, and what we want to do in it. We come to our truth, which enables us to make decisions, in extreme, existential, exceptional situations. The validity of our decisions makes itself felt in the commitment we make to carrying them out and the responsibility we take for carrying them out, responsibility in the sense of the iron rule…

 

I made a list of stories, poems and books which were mentioned in the book, which I want to read. The list has the following.

 

  • John Maynard by Theodor Fontane
  • Hutten’s Last Days by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer
  • Clothes Make the Man by Gottfried Keller
  • As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me by Josef Martin Bauer

 

I loved ‘Homecoming’. I loved the beautiful passages, the love story of Peter and Barbara, the wonderful character sketches, the font, the line spacing and the bookish cover. It is a book which satisfied me in every way. I want to read more books by Bernhard Schlink. All of them 🙂

 

Have you read this book or any other books by Bernhard Schlink? What do you think of them?

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