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I’ve wanted to read a Robert Walser book for a while now. I decided to read this one, ‘The Assistant‘, for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

Joseph lands up one day morning at the office of the inventor Tobler. Joseph is hired to work as Tobler’s assistant and handle correspondence and enquires and other things that assistants do. Tobler’s wife and children are also there in that big villa. Joseph is from a poor background and he enjoys this new lifestyle. His employer and his family are pleasant to him and his workdays are comfortable. What happens during the course of the next year, when Tobler’s business starts with a lot of promise and bright future dreams and ends in near ruin and what experiences Joseph has when he is a part of it, is told in the rest of the story.

I liked ‘The Assistant‘, but I didn’t love it. The story is interesting and it shows how being an inventor is a perilous life and how things can sink or swim in a short span of time. Robert Walser’s descriptions and observations on nature (and sometimes Joseph’s dreams and fantasies of nature) are a pleasure to read. I highlighted many beautiful passages.

I’m glad I read my first Robert Walser. I am a little disappointed though – I was almost expecting a Thomas Mann style observation on life, but I didn’t get that. What I got was Walser’s observations on life. The book has an interesting afterword by the translator Susan Bernofsky which is very insightful to read.

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

“The depths have no shape, and there is no eye that can see what they are depicting. They are singing as well, but in notes no ear can catch. They reach out their long moist hands, but there is no hand able to grasp them. They rear up on either side of the nocturnal boat, but no knowledge in any way present knows this. No eye is looking into the eye of the depths. The water disappears, the glassy abyss opens up, and the boat now appears to be drifting along, peaceful and melodious and safe, beneath the surface of the water.”

“Such a slender and delicate script already hinted at great wealth. Nearly all capitalists wrote just like this man: with precision and at the same time somewhat offhandedly. This script was the handwritten equivalent of an elegant easy bearing, an imperceptible nod of the head, a tranquil expressive hand motion. It was so long-stemmed, this writing, it exuded a certain coldness, certainly the person who wrote like this was the opposite of a hot-blooded fellow. These few words: concise and courteous in their style. The politeness and succinctness extended even to the intimate format of his blindingly white letter paper.”

“How true it is that each of the four seasons has its own particular scent and sound. When you see spring, you always think you’ve never seen it like this before, never looking so special. In summer, the summery profusion strikes you as new and magical year after year. You never really looked at fall properly before, not until this year, and when winter arrives, the winter too is utterly new, quite quite different from a year or three ago. Indeed, even the years have their own individual personalities and aromas. Having spent the year in such and such a place means having experienced and seen it. Places and years are intimately linked, and what about events and years? Since experiences can color an entire decade, how much more powerfully and swiftly they can color a short year. A short year?”

“And the world, was it changing? No. A wintry image could superimpose itself upon the world of summer, winter could give way to spring, but the face of the earth remained the same. It put on masks and took them off again, it wrinkled and cleared its huge, beautiful brow, it smiled or looked angry, but remained always the same. It was a great lover of make-up, it painted its face now more brightly, now in paler hues, now it was glowing, now pallid, never quite what it had been before, constantly it was changing a little, and yet remained always vividly and restlessly the same. It sent lighting bolts flashing from its eyes and rumbled the thunder with its powerful lungs, it wept the rain down in streams and let the clean, glittering snow come smiling from its lips, but in the features and lineaments of its face, little change could be discerned. Only on rare occasions might a shuddering earthquake, a pelting of hail, a deluge or volcanic flare disturb its placid surface, or else it quaked or shuddered inwardly with worldly sentiments and earthly convulsions, but still it remained the same. Regions remained the same; skylines, to be sure, were always waxing and expanding, but a city could never fly off and find somewhere else to live from one hour to the next. Streams and rivers followed the same courses as they had for millennia, they might peter out in the sand, but they couldn’t suddenly leap from their beds into the light open air. Water had to work its way through canals and caves. Streaming and burrowing was its age-old law. And the lakes lay where they had lain for a long, long time. They didn’t leap up toward the sun or play ball like children. Sometimes they became indignant and slapped their water in waves together with a great whooshing noise, but they could transform themselves neither into clouds one day nor wild horses one night. Everything in and upon the earth was subject to beautiful, rigorous laws, just like human beings.”

Have you read ‘The Assistant‘? What do you think about it?

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I loved Austrian writer Robert Seethaler’s first novel ‘A Whole Life. I decided to read his next book ‘The Tobacconist‘ for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

Franz lives with his mother in a small village in the middle of the mountains. Franz is seventeen years old. It is the 1930s. One day his family’s benefactor dies. Franz’ mother decides to send him to Vienna to an old’s friend’s place to work. This old friend is a tobacconist called Otto Trsnyek. Franz goes to work there as an apprentice. The tobacconist teaches him the finer points of the business and also tells him that most of the time he has to just keep quiet, read the newspaper and keep himself abreast of worldly affairs, and pay attention and learn when a customer arrives. All kinds of customers visit the shop. One day an elderly gentleman visits the shop. The tobacconist gets up with respect and calls him ‘Professor’. In the Vienna of that time, there can be only one Professor, of course. It is our famous Sigmund Freud. Soon a beautiful friendship develops between Franz and Freud. What happens after this, the experiences that Franz has as he grows up from a teenager into a young man, what impact Freud has on Franz’ life, and how the great historical events of the time impact individuals’ lives is told in the rest of the story.

I loved the different relationships depicted in the story – between Franz and his mother, between Franz and Otto Trsnyek the tobacconist, the warm friendship between Franz and Freud and the beautiful relationship between Franz and a young woman called Anezka. I loved all the main characters. One of my favourite scenes in the story was at the beginning when Otto Trsnyek inducts Franz into the life of a tobacconist and describes to him the importance of reading newspapers and the magic of cigars. I also loved the conversations between Franz and Freud. Freud comes through as a cool person with a wonderful sense of humour, which is not at all how I imagined him. The way in which the historical events of the time impacted normal people, and how some of them resisted the bad things that happened is beautifully depicted in the book.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Tobacconist‘. There is one more book of Seethaler which is available in English translation. I want to read that now.

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

Franz : “Where I come from, people might understand a bit about the timber industry and how to get summer visitors to part with their money. They don’t understand the first thing about love.”
Freud : “That’s not unusual. Nobody understands anything about love.”
Franz : “Not even you?”
Freud : “Especially not me!”
Franz : “But why is everybody always falling in love all over the place, then?”
Freud : “Young man, you don’t have to understand water in order to jump in head first.”

“The professor swallowed. ‘A Hoyo de Monterrey,’ he said, huskily. Franz nodded. ‘Harvested by brave men on the sunny, fertile banks of the San Juan y Martínez River and tenderly hand-rolled by their beautiful women.’ Freud gently palpated the cigar along its entire length and squeezed it lightly between thumb and forefinger. ‘An aromatic habano that is light in taste, yet persuades through great elegance and complexity,’ said Franz, with a naturalness that gave no hint of the many painstaking hours it had cost him to learn the descriptions on the cigar box by heart. He took a silver-plated cigar cutter from the pocket of his trousers and handed it to the professor. ‘A habano should be cut precisely on the line — here, where cap and wrapper join.’ Freud cut off the end and lit the Hoyo with a match as long as his finger. In doing so he held the flame about a centimetre away from the tip and drew on the cigar until the flame reached it. Then he turned it slowly between his fingers and blew softly on the embers. He leaned back with a faint smile and gazed at the bluish smoke curling up and away in the clear winter air.”

“Sometimes a quiet rustling reached him from the shop. Mice, perhaps, thought Franz, or rats. Or the events of the previous day, already turned into memories and rustling out of the newspapers. It’s pretty odd, actually, he thought, the way the newspapers trumpet all their truths in big fat letters only to write them small again in the next edition, or contradict them. The morning edition’s truth is practically the evening edition’s lie; though as far as memory’s concerned it doesn’t really make much difference. Because it’s not usually the truth that people remember; it’s just whatever’s yelled loudly enough or printed big enough. And eventually, thought Franz, when one of these rustlings of memory has lasted long enough, it becomes history.”

“Those who knew nothing had no worries, thought Franz, but if it was hard enough painstakingly to acquire knowledge, it was even harder, if not practically impossible, to forget what you had once known.”

“…it’s not actually our destiny to know the paths. Our destiny is precisely not to know them. We don’t come into this world to find answers, but to ask questions. We grope around, as it were, in perpetual darkness, and it’s only if we’re very lucky that we sometimes see a little flicker of light. And only with a great deal of courage or persistence or stupidity — or, best of all, all three at once — can we make our mark here and there, indicate the way.”

Have you read ‘The Tobacconist‘? What do you think about it?

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I wanted to read a book by a Swiss author and so decided to read Martin Suter’sThe Last Weynfeldt‘. I read this for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

Adrian Weynfeldt is an art expert. He helps in writing art catalogues, valuing works of art, organizing art auctions. He is in his fifties. He is a man of simple, steady habits. One day, very surprisingly, he comes home with a beautiful woman. The next day morning, when he gets up, he discovers that the woman is standing at the balcony, ready to take the plunge. Adrian tries to talk her down. The strange sequence of events which arise from this and which flow rapidly takes us into the art world, the world of painters and paintings and art auctions and art forgeries.

The Last Weynfeldt‘ is kind of a thriller. A sleek one though. The start is spectacular and though the rest of the book can’t keep up with that, it is still interesting. There is a lot of information in the book about Swiss art and artists. There is also a lot of information about furniture designers and architects. One of the things I loved was the description of food. Martin Suter takes a lot of pleasure in writing about food. I made a list of things that I’d like to try. Especially ravioli ricotta with sage butter (have never tried sage butter), buckwheat blini (have tried blini and I love it, but I don’t think I’ve tried buckwheat blini), Birnbrot (pastry filled with dry pears – sounds wonderful!). The characters in the book are interesting – I especially liked Adrian, his housekeeper Frau Hauser who behaves like his mom, being affectionate and tough at the same time, his secretary Veronique, and the beautiful woman who tries jumping out of his balcony, Lorena. The story has a surprising fascinating ending, but I won’t tell you what 😊

I enjoyed reading ‘The Last Weynfeldt‘. I won’t call it my favourite thriller, but it was pleasant reading for a Sunday afternoon.

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

“He believed that regularity prolonged life. There was also the opposing theory: regularity makes each day indistinguishable, and the more events and habits are repeated, the more the days resemble each other and the years too. Till your whole life feels like one single year. Weynfeldt didn’t believe this. If you do the same things more often, go to the same places and meet the same people, the differences become subtler each time. And if the differences are subtler then time passes unnoticed. Someone you see every month instead of every year never appears to age. And you never appear to age to them. Repetition slows down the passage of time. Weynfeldt was absolutely convinced of this. Change might make life more eventful, but it undoubtedly made it shorter too.”

“Adrian was waiting for Lorena to call, and waiting was not an activity for him; it was a state, not such an unpleasant one. Like flying. As soon as he boarded an airplane, he was placed in a state of absolute passivity. Of course he ate the food served him, and read a newspaper, or a book. But he was passive as far as flying itself was concerned. He knew there was nothing he could do to influence it and delegated it unconditionally to those who could.”

Have you read ‘The Last Weynfeldt‘? What do you think about it?

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I stumbled upon Bernhard Schlink’sThe Woman on the Stairs‘ recently. I haven’t read a book by him in a while and so I thought I’ll read this now for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

The narrator of the story is a German lawyer. He is in Sydney on a  work-related trip. During a break from work, he goes to the art gallery. He is surprised when he sees a painting there called ‘The Woman on the Stairs’. We discover that there are mysterious past events that connect him to the painting and the people related to it. Our lawyer tries to find out who owns the painting, but hits a dead end. Then he hires a detective to find that out. What happens after that, when our lawyer goes on a quest for a secret from his past and tries to find the mysterious woman in the painting forms the rest of the story.

I don’t want to tell you anything more on the plot, but I can’t resist saying this. The next passage is my own opinion, but I think it is also spoiler-ish. Thought I’ll warn you in advance 😊

The Woman on the Stairs‘ is a beautiful homage to Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler and ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’. It is a beautiful love letter to Irene Adler. Atleast that is what I think. What happens when, after many years, Sherlock Holmes stumbles upon a clue and goes on a quest for Irene Adler? What if Sherlock Holmes is not a detective but a lawyer? What if it is not Bohemia of the 19th century but the Germany of the contemporary era? And what if Irene Adler is, well Irene Adler? 😊 Well, this is the story we get. It is beautiful. I loved it.

I had forgotten how much I liked Bernhard Schlink till I read this book. I loved his books, ‘The Reader‘ and ‘Homecoming‘, and some of the stories I read in ‘Flights of Love‘. Then I read his book ‘The Weekend‘ and hated it and I stopped reading Bernhard Schlink. Now I realize that he was probably having a bad day when he wrote ‘The Weekend’. Because his stories are consistently good. His prose is spare, his sentences are short. Every sentence moves the plot. There is no superfluous sentence, no wasted word. Occasionally there is a beautiful passage. Perfect reading if you don’t want to tax your brain too much, but want to relax and enjoy the story, and read the occasional beautiful paragraph. This book had all this, it was vintage Schlink. He has written one more book after this, ‘Olga‘. It looks fascinating. I want to read that soon.

This particular passage in the book made me smile 😊

“In our family, we did, and still do things by the book: no loud fights, no love fests or orgies of joy, no lazing about, as much work as possible, as much rest as necessary; day is day and night is night.”

When I was a kid, this was how my family was – no loud fights, spoke in low tones, didn’t show happiness or sadness or anger in an explicit way. I remember when my dad got angry, he spoke in a low menacing voice and it sent a chill down our spines. My sister, who was never scared of anyone, even she was scared of him at that time. All this changed when I got older. Now, I scream when I get angry at home  I scream when I am filled with joy, especially when watching a sporting event on TV – when Leyla Fernandez is match point down and she hits a delicate drop volley, or when Barbora Krejcikova is set point down and she hits a flowing forehand winner, or when Mohammed Hafeez delicately teases a ball between two fielders to the boundary and Alan Wilkins says on commentary – “Professor Hafeez is playing chess with his cricket bat…He is toying with the bowling with the delicacy of a surgeon” – I can’t stop screaming when I see that 😊 I love lazing about sometimes (or many times 😊) not doing anything, I rest a lot sometimes but do with very less rest on most days. And last but not not the least, day is night and night is day in these parts 😆 It is like night owl has gone rogue here 😆 I used to be the guy who followed all these rules, and now I’ve broken every one of them that it makes me smile 😊

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

“I read about the history of Australia, the convicts in chains, the settlers, the land grant companies, the gold miners, the Chinese. The Aborigines who died first from infections, then from being massacred, and then had their children taken away. The taking was well intentioned, it brought tremendous suffering to both parents and children. My wife would have nodded; she liked to say that the opposite of good is not evil, but good intentions. But the opposite of evil is not evil intentions, but good.”

“I sat back down on the bench. Should I go to the firm? I could still put in a day’s work. I didn’t want to. When, in the Botanic Garden, I remembered that morning by the river, it occurred to me that I had never done that again, fritter away a day. Of course, with my fiancée, then wife, and then with my children, there were days when I didn’t work. But on those days I did what I owed my fiancée, my wife and children, what served our health, education, togetherness. Pleasant activities, certainly, and a nice change of pace from work. But just to sit, and watch the world go by, and close my eyes against the sun, and daydream hour after hour, to find a restaurant with good food and wine, take a little walk, then find another place to sit and watch, and close my eyes against the sun, and dream – I did that only that day, and now again in Sydney.”

“The wind felt weird. It came without clouds, and without rain; it had no right to show off, but it did. It did not blow on me, but around me and through me and let me know how frail I was, as it let the house feel how fragile it was.”

“It takes many masons to build the cathedral of justice; some hew blocks, others carve plinths and cornices, still others, ornaments and statues. They are all equally important to the project: prosecution and defence are as important as judgement; the drafting of rental, employment and inheritance contracts is as important as the implementation of mergers and acquisitions; the lawyer for the rich as important as the lawyer for the poor. The cathedral would still rise without my contribution. It would rise without this cornice, or that ornament, but still they are part of it.”

“Or is it the small defeats that we can’t get over? The first tiny scratch on a new car is more painful than a big one later on. The small splinters are harder to remove than the big ones and sometimes won’t come out however much you poke them with a needle, and they fester until they work their way out. The big early defeats change the course of our lives. The small ones don’t change us, but they stay with us and torment us, little thorns in our side.”

Have you read ‘The Woman on the Stairs‘? Which is your favourite Bernhard Schlink book?

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I’ve read three books by Hermann Hesse before – Narcissus and Goldmund, Siddhartha, and a collection of poetry. Hesse was one of my favourite writers at one point. But I haven’t read a Hesse book in a while, and I thought I had grown out of Hesse. But then I read the first page of ‘Demian‘ and it was wonderful and so I decided to read it. I read this for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

The narrator of the story is Emil Sinclair. As the story begins, he looks back on his past, and tells us his lifestory. He describes how when he was a kid, he discovered that the world was light and dark, how the safety and coziness of his home and family was light, while outside his house lurked many dark things. And what happened when one day, the darkness crept into the light. He goes on to describe, how this interplay between light and dark continued through his life, how different people took him under their wing and mentored and supported him and how he got caught in the middle of historical events.

The start of the story is brilliant and four-fifths of the story is wonderful, vintage Hesse. But things turn somewhere  in the last part, and the story becomes a melange of spirituality and history and some prescriptive philosophy, and though one of my favourite characters makes an appearance in the last part of the story, the story sinks here and it hasn’t aged well. Maybe, the readers of that time loved it more.

The mentors of the narrator are all very fascinating, including the title character Demian, but my favourite out of them was a person called Pistorius, who plays the organ in a small church. He looks simple, doesn’t dress well, doesn’t look good, doesn’t talk much, but inside his mind lives an amazing person. The conversations between the narrator and Pistorius were some of my favourite parts of the book.

I also discovered this sentence in the book – “For it had gained the whole world, while losing its soul in the process.” It made me smile  Because another version of this sentence is one of my favourite sentences ever, and it is from W. Somerset Maugham’s short story, ‘The Fall of Edward Barnard‘. Maugham was a voracious reader who read in German and French too, and he was famous for borrowing plots and characters from the German and French novels that he read. Now, I am wondering whether Maugham just borrowed this sentence from Hesse and modified it to his story’s requirement 😊 Can’t put this copycatting past old, wily Will 😊

I enjoyed reading ‘Demian‘. Not as much as ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’ or ‘Siddhartha’, but I still liked it. I wish I had read it when I was younger, at a more impressionable age. I think I would have liked it more then. Hesse’s thoughts on the greatness of eastern mysticism and how after the First World War a new world was going to come out which was going to be beautiful – these haven’t aged well. The world seems to be hurtling from one crisis to another with no end in sight. Francis Fukuyama  wrote a book after the end of the Cold War era called ‘The End of History and the Last Man’, the main contention of the book being that communism is dead, the West has won, and now life is heaven. Now, after nearly thirty years, we can’t resist laughing at this contention with contempt 😊 We’ll be more kind to Hesse though – he had no way of knowing that human beings were more crazier than he thought.

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

“I could do everything the others were capable of; with a little diligence and effort I could read Plato, solve problems in trigonometry, or follow a chemical analysis. There was only one thing I couldn’t do: tear out the obscurely hidden aim within me and visualize it somewhere before my eyes, as others did, those who knew precisely that they wanted to become a professor, judge, doctor, or artist, who knew how long that would take them and what benefits it would bring them. I couldn’t do that. Maybe I would become something of the sort in the future, but how was I to know? Perhaps I might even have to seek and seek for years and never become anything or reach any goal. Perhaps I might reach some goal, but it would be evil, perilous, frightening. All I really wanted was to try and live the life that was spontaneously welling up within me. Why was that so very difficult?”

“Two or three times on my walks through town, I had heard organ music coming from a smallish suburban church…I felt that the man playing there knew that a treasure was locked away in that music, and was suing, insisting, and striving for that treasure as if for his life…Everything he played was religious, devout, and pious, but not with the piety of churchgoers and pastors—rather, with the piety of medieval pilgrims and beggars; it was pious with an unconditional surrender to a universal emotion that rose above any particular faith. He diligently played composers earlier than Bach, and old Italian masters. And they all stated the same thing, they all stated what the musician had in his soul as well: longing, the most intimate grasping of the world and the most reckless separation from it again, an ardent listening to one’s own obscure soul, a frenzy of devotion and a profound curiosity for the miraculous.”

Have you read ‘Demian‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Hesse book?

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It is the first day of November and it is the start of German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. This event steps into its second decade today, and it is one of my favourite reading events of the year, and so I am very excited!

German writers are famous for their novellas and so I thought I’ll start with one. I’ve wanted to read Heinrich Böll for a long time and so read his first book ‘The Train was on Time‘.

Andreas is a soldier in the German army during the Second World War. When the story starts, he is deployed into the Eastern Front. Andreas has a premonition that he is going to die soon. He even roughly knows where. He calculates the when while he is on the train and he is filled with dread. But he meets two fellow soldiers on the train, and an easy camaraderie develops between them, and they start hanging out together. One of them taken on the leadership role of the gang, and takes the other two under his wing. What happens after that forms the rest of the story. Does Andreas’ premonition come true? You have to read the book to find out.

I loved ‘The Train was on Time‘. The dread of a soldier going out to war is so beautifully and realistically depicted in the story. The camaraderie of the three soldiers and the experiences they share is also wonderfully depicted. In the second half of the book a character called Olina makes her appearance, and the long conversation that she has with Andreas is one of the beautiful and magical parts of the book. Heinrich Böll’s prose has the classic long sentences loved by German writers and is a pleasure to read.

One of the things that I discovered through the book was Sauternes, which is a French sweet wine. I love learning about new wines, and I love dessert wines and so this was a pleasurable discovery. My favourite dessert wine is a Canadian icewine called Inniskillin. Now I can’t wait to try Sauternes. So exciting!

The Train was on Time‘ is a nuanced war novel (or an anti-war novel). It is also a beautiful love story, though not a conventional one.

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

“Soon. Soon. Soon. Soon. When is Soon? What a terrible word: Soon. Soon can mean in one second, Soon can mean in one year. Soon is a terrible word. This Soon compresses the future, shrinks it, offers no certainty, no certainty whatever, it stands for absolute uncertainty. Soon is nothing and Soon is a lot. Soon is everything…”

“It’s a terrible thing to maltreat a person because that person seems ugly to you. There are no ugly people.”

“Suddenly he realized they were already in Poland. His heart stood still for a moment, missed another beat as if the artery had suddenly knotted, blocking off the blood. Never again will I be in Germany, Germany’s gone. The train left Germany while I was asleep. Somewhere there was a line, an invisible line across a field or right through the middle of a village, and that was the border, and the train passed callously over it, and I was no longer in Germany, and no one woke me so I could have one more look out into the night and at least see a piece of the night that hung over Germany. Of course no one knows I shan’t see it again, no one knows I’m going to die, no one on the train. Never again will I see the Rhine. The Rhine! The Rhine! Never again! This train is simply taking me along, carting me off to Przemy´sl, and there’s Poland, hopeless hapless Poland, and I’ll never see the Rhine, never smell it again, that exquisite tang of water and seaweed that coats and clings to every stone along the banks of the Rhine. Never again the avenues along the Rhine, the gardens behind the villas, and the boats, so bright and clean and gay, and the bridges, those splendid bridges, spare and elegant, leaping over the water like great slender animals.”

“He waited until it was dark. He had no idea how long it took, he had forgotten the girl, forgotten the wine, the whole house, and all he saw was a last little bit of the forest whose treetops caught a few final glints from the setting sun, a few tiny glints from the sun. Some reddish gleams, exquisite, indescribably beautiful on those treetops. A tiny crown of light, the last light he would ever see. Now it was gone … no, there was still a bit, a tiny little bit on the tallest of the trees, the one that reached up the highest and could still catch something of the golden reflection that would remain for only half a second … until it was all gone. It’s still there, he thought, holding his breath … still a particle of light up there on the treetop … an absurd little shimmer of sunlight, and no one in the world but me is watching it. Still there … still there, it was like a smile that faded very slowly … still there, and now it was gone! The light has gone out, the lantern has vanished, and I shall never see it again…”

Have you read ‘The Train was on Time‘? What do you think about it? And, which is your favourite sweet / dessert wine? 😊

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In his introduction to Thomas Mann’s epic ‘Joseph and his Brothers‘, translator John E. Woods gives this suggestion on how to read the book.

“And yet the question remains how best should a reader approach a work so monumental and complex – plunge in at page 1 and devil take the hindmost? That is, after all, the way Mann wrote it to be read. With considerable trepidation, I would like to suggest a different strategy for first-time readers of this great novel. I propose you start with “The Story of Dinah,” part 3 of The Stories of Jacob. Based on a Bible story (Genesis 33:17-35:5) never taught in the Sunday schools of my youth, this tale of passion and revenge becomes, in Mann’s hand, a marvelous epitome of the virtues of the novel as a whole. My hope, and my guess, is that you will be irrevocably caught up in this great literary adventure and eager to climb the “pyramid.” But beware : don’t begin at the beginning even yet. For those just getting their climbing legs in shape, “Prelude: Descent into Hell” may well turn out to be literally that. This opening chapter’s larger historical and theological perspectives introduce many of the themes that Mann will weave into his four novels, but without a story to hang them on, you may well feel he has pushed you over the edge and down a well that is indeed bottomless. So, “Dinah” first, then back to part 1, “At the Well” and at some point, halfway up volume 1 or so, you will want to look back, and give the Prelude its due, for it has monumental rewards.”

Being an old-fashioned reader, I didn’t follow his advice. I refused to take the easy way out. I did what Woods has described at the beginning – “plunge in at page 1 and devil take the hindmost” 😆 I started with ‘Prelude : Descent into Hell’. It wasn’t the hell that Woods had said it might be. It wasn’t that bad. It was actually amazing. It was vintage Mann though – complex and challenging prose, long sentences, but if you don’t get intimidated and you persist, you’ll be amply rewarded. Mann doesn’t court you with his first sentence and paragraph, he challenges you, he demands your attention, he makes you put in the hard work and the intellectual effort. It is worth it.

Yesterday, I finished the prelude (yes, the descent into hell as Mann describes it – I’m back now to tell the tale 😆), part 1 and part 2, and I am knocking at the doors of part 3. I can’t wait to get started on ‘The Story of Dinah‘.

After quite a while, I’ve managed to finish 100 straight pages from a book. I think I can say now that my reading slump is officially over 😊 Yay!

Do you follow a specific reading plan while tackling a big book?

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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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