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After taking a short break from reading, which was threatening to morph into a reading slump, I am back with a new book review. November for me is German Literature Month. German Literature Month is hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. During this month, German Literature fans across the world get together and read books originally written in German. I have been participating in this event since inception and it has expanded my German literary horizons in a rich way. The first book I read for German Literature Month this year was ‘Elective Affinities‘ by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Goethe is most famous today for ‘Faust‘ which is probably regarded as his greatest work. But he wrote all kinds of things – novels, plays, poems, travelogues. ‘Elective Affinities‘ is one of his famous novels. The title comes from this fact observed in chemistry – that some chemicals are naturally attracted towards each other and get together and form new chemicals. Sometimes two chemicals are not attracted towards each other and actually refuse to mix together, but in the presence of a third chemical, they get together and do surprising, interesting things. These behaviours were referred to, by chemists, as ‘elective affinities’. What happens when we take this story to people? What happens when two people are joined by a third person? Or a fourth person? Do we see some elective affinities in play here? This novel explores that.

Eduard and Charlotte are happily married. They loved each other when they were younger, but things didn’t work out as they had planned. They ended up marrying other people, but as time passed their partners passed, and they ended up together. That is a good story with a happy ending. But this story starts with that happy ending as its beginning. While Eduard and Charlotte are enjoying their happy life together, Eduard tells Charlotte that his old friend, the Captain, is not doing well now, and he wants to invite his friend to stay with them. Charlotte is apprehensive about this, because she feels this will disturb the equilibrium of the household and their relationship. Charlotte has a ward called Ottilie. Ottilie is Charlotte’s best friend’s daughter, and after her friend passed, Charlotte takes Ottilie under her wing, and treats her like her own daughter. Charlotte also has a daughter of her own from her previous marriage. Ottilie and Charlotte’s daughter study in the same school together. Charlotte’s daughter is a star there and excels in every way, while Ottilie is very quiet and goes about her business in her own quiet way. Charlotte discovers this after a while and she feels that Ottilie feels out-of-place at the school. She thinks of getting Ottilie back and asking her to help Charlotte out at the house. But she is hesitant to talk about this with Eduard because of the same reason – she doesn’t want to disturb the equilibrium of the household with the addition of a new person. At some point, Charlotte and Eduard have a conversation about it and they feel that it is silly to deny themselves the opportunity to help the people they love. They decide to invite the Captain and Ottilie to stay with them. Things go well for a while. The four of them hang out together, do things together, have wonderful conversations, and a beautiful friendship develops between them. But then the inevitable happens and elective affinities come into play. Eduard and Ottilie are attracted towards each other, while Charlotte and the Captain are attracted towards each other. What happens after that? Will the four friends do something about their feelings? Will they break social norms? Does it end well for them or does it end badly? The answers to all these questions form the rest of the story.

I loved ‘Elective Affinities‘. It was probably far ahead of its times – the book was published in 1809 – and the main theme of the story feels very fresh and contemporary. The introduction to the book says that it created a lot of controversy when it first came out. I loved two things about the story, the most. The first thing was how the four main characters were portrayed. It was hard to dislike any of them. They were all real, believable, complex people, and they all were likeable. I occasionally had problems with the way Eduard reacted, but the other three were beautiful characters. And the very beautiful thing was that they all loved each other. They loved each other in different ways, but it was mostly positive and beautiful. My twenty-first century self, at one point, wanted them all to live together in the same house, like a ‘modern family’, and live happily ever after. That was a pipedream, of course. This was a novel written in the early 1800s, and so unfortunately, that happy ending was not happening. I won’t tell you what happened though. You have to read the book and find out. The second thing I loved about the book was the beautiful prose and thoughts. They didn’t come in every page like they might in some of today’s literary fiction, but the beautiful passages came once in a while. The book was focussed on the plot, and each sentence and paragraph did its thing to move the plot forward. But like a breather, once in a while, there was a beautiful passage, which made us pause and ponder and re-read it again and contemplate more. It was liking taking a hike to the top of the mountain, when we are focussing on the climb to the top, but when we reach the top, a beautiful vista opens up and we can see the whole green valley revealing all its glorious beauty and we want to stand there and take it all in and don’t want to leave. The beautiful passages were that valley, that beautiful view from the top. Once upon a time, novelists wrote like this. Nowadays they don’t write like this anymore. It is sad.

I am happy that I finally read ‘Elective Affinities‘. It is a beautiful study of marriage and love, within and without marriage. This is my second Goethe novel, after ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther‘, and though I liked both, I think I like ‘Elective Affinities’ more. The book has a beautiful introduction by the translator R.J.Hollingdale, in which he describes how Goethe came to write this book and how his own experiences and ideas led to the story.

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

“The case of the craftsman and the sculptor supplies the clearest evidence that man is least able to make his own that which most completely belongs to him. His works desert him as the bird deserts the nest in which it was hatched.
The architect above all has in this the strangest of destinies. How often he employs his whole mind and his whole love in the production of rooms from which he himself must be excluded. Kingly halls owe to him their splendour, but he cannot enjoy them at their most effective. In temples, he fixes a boundary between himself and the holy of holies, he may no longer mount the steps he himself has erected, just as the goldsmith may worship only from afar the monstrance he has made. The architect hands over to the rich man with the keys of his palace all the ease and comfort to be found in it without being able to enjoy any of it himself. Must the artist not in this way gradually become alienated from his art, since his work, like a child that has been provided for and left home, can no longer have any effect upon its father? And how beneficial it must have been for art when it was intended to be concerned almost exclusively with what was public property, and belonged to everybody and therefore also to the artist!”

“Only let us firmly determine on one thing : to separate everything that is actual business from living. Business demands seriousness and severity, living demands caprice; business requires consistency, living often requires inconsistency, for that is what makes life agreeable and exhilarating. If you are secure in the one, you can be all the more free in the other; whereas if you confound the two, your freedom uproots and destroys your security.”

“Actually my dear, it is our own fault if we are surprised in this fashion. We do so like to imagine that earthly things are so very permanent, and especially the marriage tie. And as to that, we are misled by all those comedies we see so much of into imaginings which are quite contrary to the way of the world. In a comedy we see a marriage as the final fulfilment of a desire which has been thwarted by the obstacles of several acts. The moment this desire is fulfilled, the curtain falls, and this momentary satisfaction goes on echoing in our minds. Things are different in the real world. In the real world the play continues after the curtain has fallen, and when it is raised again, there is not much pleasure to be gained by seeing or hearing what is going on.”

“I should like to see the man who has a greater talent for love than I have.”

“As life draws us along, we think we are acting of our own volition, ourselves choosing what we shall do and what we shall enjoy; but when we look more closely we see they are only the intentions and inclinations of the age which we are being compelled to comply with.”

“Just as the gardener must not let himself be distracted by other interests and inclinations, so the peaceful progress of the plant towards lasting or transient perfection must not be interrupted. Plants are like self-willed people with whom you can do anything provided you handle them properly. A tranquil eye, an unruffled consistency in doing, each season of the year, each hour of the day, precisely what needs to be done, are perhaps required of nobody more than they are of the gardener.”

“Why is the year sometimes so long, sometimes so short, why does it seem so short and yet in retrospect so long? That is how the past year appeared to me, and nowhere more strikingly than in the garden : what is transient and what endures are involved one with another. And yet nothing is so fleeting but it leaves some trace of itself behind.”

“We often encounter in everyday life something which, when we encounter it in art, we are accustomed to attribute to the poet’s artistry : when the chief characters are absent or concealed, or lapse into inactivity, their place is at once taken by a second or third character who has hardly been noticed before, and when this character then comes fully into his own he seems just as worthy of our attention and sympathy and even of our praise.”

Have you read ‘Elective Affinities‘? What do you think about it?

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I read Caroline’s (from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) wonderful review of ‘Crime’ by Ferdinand von Schirach (‘Verbrechen’ in German) recently and couldn’t resist getting the book.  I got it last week and finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think about it.

‘Crime’ is a collection of eleven true-life stories. They are told by an unnamed narrator (who I assumed was Ferdinand von Schirach) who makes an appearance in each of those stories. Each of the stories touches on a distinct or interesting point of law. In some stories the murderer is not the real villain. In some stories it is not apparent whether a crime has been committed. In some stories though we know who committed the supposed crime, we don’t know the identity of that person – in the sense that the concerned person refuses to speak and reveal even his name. There are a few stories where the main character has a psychological issue. It is interesting to read how the law treats such people who have supposedly committed a crime.

 

The first thing that appealed to me about the book was the writer’s name. I always thought that Ferdinand was a Spanish name. I didn’t know that it could be German too. The second thing that I liked very much was the introduction by the author. After talking a bit about his uncle who was a judge, he talks about the book. My favourite passage in the introduction went like this :

 

I tell the stories of people I’ve defended. They were murderers, drug dealers, bank robbers and prostitutes. They all had their stories, and they weren’t so different from us. All our lives we dance on a thin layer of ice; it’s very cold underneath, and death is quick.  The ice won’t bear the weight of some people and they fall through. That’s the moment that interests me. If we’re lucky it never happens to us and we keep dancing. If we’re lucky.

 

Beautiful, isn’t it?

 

The third thing that I liked about the book was how von Schirach presents some of the subtleties and processes of the law and shows how things are not as black-and-white as they seem from outside. For example in ‘Fähner’, he says this about oaths :

 

The most recent reform of the code of criminal procedure has dismissed the oath as an obligatory component of any sworn testimony in a criminal case. We ceased believing in it a long time ago. When a witness lies, he lies – no judge seriously thinks an oath would make him do otherwise, and oaths appear to leave our contemporaries indifferent.

 

In another place in the same story, von Schirach talks about punishment :

 

With regard to the practicalities of the case, there was nothing to defend. It was, rather, a problem of judicial philosophy : what is the meaning of punishment? Why do we punish? I used my summation to try to establish this. There is a whole host of theories. Punishment should e a deterrent. Punishment should protect us. Punishment should make the perpetrator avoid any such act in the future. Punishment should counterbalance injustice. Our laws are a composite of these theories, but none of them fitted this case exactly.

 

In ‘The Ethiopian’ he continues on this topic :

 

We punish according to someone’s guilt; we ask to what extent we can make him responsible for his actions. It’s complicated. In the Middle Ages, things were simpler : punishment was only commensurate with the act itself…Punishment in those days was a form of mathematics; every act carried a precisely established weight of retribution. Our contemporary criminal law is more intelligent, it is more just as regards life, but it is also more difficult.

 

In ‘Summertime’, von Schirach compares real-world crime with what happens in detective novels.

 

In detective novels, the person who did it confesses when he or she is screamed at; in real life, it’s not that simple. And when a man with a bloody knife in his hand is bent over a corpse, that means he’s the murderer. No reasonable policeman would believe he had only walked past by chance and tried to help by pulling the knife out of the body. The detective superintendent’s observation that a particular solution is too simple is a screenwriter’s conceit. The opposite is true. What is obvious is what is plausible. And most often, it’s also what’s right.

 

In one of my favourite stories, ‘Self-Defence’, von Schirach contemplates on how much self defence is acceptable when one is attacked.

 

When you are attacked, you have the right to defend yourself, and there is no limit to your choice of means. You may respond to a fist with a cudgel, and to a knife with a gun; you are under no obligation to choose the mildest form of counterattack. But equally, you may not overreact : if you’ve already rendered your attacker helpless with a pistol shot, you may not cut off his head for good measure. The law does not tolerate such excesses.

 

I loved that passage 🙂

 

In ‘The Ethiopian’, the author talks about the prosecutor’s role in Germany, which I found quite fascinating :

 

In a trial, it is the prosecutor who presents his closing argument first. Unlike in the United States or England, the prosecutor takes no position; he or she is neutral. The prosecutor’s office is neutral; it also establishes exonerating circumstances, and thus it neither wins nor loses – the only passion in the prosecutor’s office is for the law. The law is all it serves – that, and justice. That at least is the theory.

 

This was one of my favourite passages in the book.

 

The fourth thing I liked about the book was the cover. I found it very beautiful. (I loved Lizzy’s interpretation of the cover picture in her review.)

 

After starting the book, one day I was on my way to the grocery store and thinking about the book while walking. For some reason I started thinking about the translator’s name. And I wondered whether her name was Carol Brown Janeway or Carol Jane Brownway. The two seemed to be philosophically different (the first one had a middle name which was closer to a last name, while the second one had a middle name which was closer to a first name) and I pondered which one of them was the right name. After thinking a bit, it seemed to me that Brownway seemed to be more plausible than Janeway. Then I came back and I looked at the book cover and discovered that her name was Janeway! Have you heard of this last name before?

 

Ferdinand von Schirach’s prose style is simple, plain, uncomplicated, down-to-earth. The focus is on narrating the story and conveying the subtleties of law and justice. Not a single word is wasted. I thought of Hemingway’s prose when I read this book.

 

My favourite story in the book was ‘Self-Defence’. A middle-aged man who looks like a bank clerk is sitting on a bench near the railway station. Two thugs come by. They sense a prey there. They want to bully the man and have fun. They come near and try to have a conversation with him. The man is quiet. One of the thugs pulls out a knife and tries to hurt the man mildly so that he will talk to them. Our bank clerk looks at the two men without any expression on his face. The thugs don’t know that they have opened a bottle and a genie is going to come out. Before they know our bank clerk hero delivers lethal kungfu kicks on them and in no time they are lying on the floor. What our bank clerk hero did – whether it was legally the appropriate level of self-defence or it was excessive – the answer to this question forms the rest of the story. I loved the mysterious bank clerk hero – he rocked 🙂

 

Another favourite story of mine was ‘The Ethiopian’. I liked it because of my Ethiopian connection. I also liked ‘The Thorn’ for showing how a man who lives alone and does a solitary job can change fundamentally across years, ‘The Hedgehog’ where a young man who is bullied by everyone around has a parallel life as an intelligent genius and how his genius saves his family members (this story had one of my favourite lines – “The fox knows many things, the hedgehog only one thing. The judges and the prosecutors might be foxes, but he was the hedgehog and he’d learned his skills.”), ‘Tanata’s Tea Bowl’ for showing an interesting glimpse into Japanese culture and ‘Summertime’ for this line – “He told his friends that when she drank, he could see the water running down inside the throat.”  I have heard someone actually say this when he wanted to impress another about a girl’s beauty.

 

‘Crime’ is a wonderful addition to literature on true-crime. I can’t wait to read von Schirach’s second story collection ‘Sin’ (‘Schuld’).

 

I will leave you with links to other reviews of this book.

 

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

Priya’s (from Tabula Rasa) review

Lizzy’s (from Lizzy’s Literary Lives) review

 

Have you read ‘Crime’ by Ferdinand von Schirach? What do you think about it?

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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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I read the book ‘Night Train to Lisbon’ by Pascal Mercier sometime back (You can find my review of it here). I loved the book. It made me think of German literature in general and how little of it I have read – except for Herman Hesse. So I thought I will ask fellow book blogger Bina, for recommendations. She was kind enough to introduce me to some wonderful German authors and books and one of the books that she recommended was ‘Perfume’ by Patrick Süskind. I started reading it a few days back and finished reading it yesterday. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the book as given in its back cover.

Patrick Süskind’s Perfume follows the life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, abandoned at birth in the slums of eighteenth-century Paris, but blessed with an outstanding sense of smell. This gift enables Jean-Baptiste to master the art of perfume making, but one scent evades him : that of a virgin, whom he must possess to ensure her innocence and beauty are preserved. Laced with sense and suspense, this is a beguiling tale of lust, desire and deadly obsession.

What I think

I had a problem with the subtitle of the book, because eighty percent of the book was about perfumes and only the last twenty percent involved murders. Even that last twenty percent was predominantly about the main character’s search for a legendary perfume. But aside from this minor complaint, I really enjoyed reading ‘Perfume’. Patrick Süskind’s prose is beautiful, exquisite, delightful and is a pleasure to read. The book can be read just for the prose and for the sensory descriptions of scents and fragrances. I encountered beautiful lines and passages in every page that I couldn’t stop highlighting. I couldn’t stop thinking that if the prose was so good in translation how it would be in the original. I am jealous of readers who have read it in the original 🙂

One of the other things that I noticed about the book was that it had very less dialogue. One of the things that is taught in creative writing classes is that aspiring writers should learn how to write dialogue, because it makes it easy for the reader because the pages fly while reading dialogues between characters. But I have seen many masters being positively indifferent to dialogues – like Jose Saramago, Roberto Bolano, Cormac McCarthy and now Patrick Süskind – and who just told a story with minimal or no dialogue (even Michael Crichton in his first book ‘The Andromeda Strain’ avoided dialogues and stuck to narration). It is interesting to see how what is taught in schools is different from what is practised by the masters.

I didn’t have much affection for most of the characters in the story except for maybe, Antoine Richis. I felt sorry and sad for the main character Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, who doesn’t see any genuine human warmth or love or affection throughout his whole life – everyone whom he meets since birth try to push him away or use him for their own selfish ends. It is no surprise that someone like him ends up being cynical about the world and people and ends up being passionate for his art of perfume-making and is ready to do anything to master it. I would say that it is a sad commentary on the community in which Grenouille was born and in which he lived.

The book also raises questions on what lengths one can go if one is passionate and obsessed about one’s field and tries to invent something new or wants to attain glory. It is an interesting question.

I also found the first passage of the book quite interesting. It goes like this :

In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages. His story will be told here. His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and if his name – in contrast to the names of other gifted abominations, de Sade’s, for instance, or Saint Just’s, Fouche’s, Bonaparte’s, etc. – has been forgotten today, it is certainly not because Grenouille fell short of those more famous blackguards when it came to arrogance, misanthropy, immorality, or, more succintly, wickedness…

I found it interesting that Napolean Bonaparte has been bracketed with Marquis de Sade and is called arrogant, immoral, wicked 🙂 Some people might wince at that.

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.

What does a baby smell like

‘…now be so kind as to tell me : what does a baby smell like when he smells the way you think he ought to smell? Well?’

‘He smells good,’ said the wet nurse.
‘What do you mean, “good”?’ Terrier bellowed at her. ‘Lots of things smell good. A bouquet of lavender smells good. Stewed meat smells good. The gardens of Arabia smell good. But what does a baby smell like, is what I want to know?’
The we nurse hesitated. She knew very well how babies smell, she knew precisely – after all she had fed, tended, cradled and kissed dozens of them…She could find them at night with her nose. Why, right at that moment she bore that baby smell clearly in her nose. But never until now had she described it in words.
‘Well?’ barked Terrier, clicking his fingernails impatiently.
‘Well it’s – ‘ the wet nurse began, ‘it’s not all that easy to say, because…because they don’t smell the same all over, although they smell good all over, Father, you know what I mean? Their feet for instance, they smell like a smooth warm stone – or no, more like curds…or like butter, like fresh butter, that’s it exactly. They smell like fresh butter. And their bodies smell like…like a pancake that’s been soaked in milk. And their heads, up on top, at the back of the head, where the hair makes a cowlick…there, right there, is where they smell best of all. It smells like caramel, it smells so sweet, so wonderful, Father, you have no idea! Once you’ve smelled from there, you love them whether they’re your own or somebody else’s. And that’s how little children have to smell – and no other way.’

The Smell of the Sea

The sea smelled like a sail whose billows had caught up water, salt and a cold sun. It had a simple smell, the sea, but at the same time it smelled immense and unique, so much so that Grenouille hesitated to dissect the odours into fishy, salty, watery, seaweedy, fresh-airy, and so on. He preferred to leave the smell of the sea blended together, preserving it as a unit in his memory, relishing it whole. The smell of the sea pleased him so much that he wanted one day to take it in, pure and unadulterated, in such quantities that he could get drunk on it. And later, when he learned from stories how large the sea is and that you can sail upon it in ships for days on end without ever seeing land, nothing pleased him more than the image of himself sitting high up in the crow’s nest of the foremost mast on such a ship, gliding on through the endless smell of the sea – which really was no smell, but a breath, an exhalation of breath, the end of all smells – dissolving with pleasure in that breath.

The Mysterious Scent

…the wind brought him something, a tiny, hardly noticeable something, a crumb, an atom of scent; no, even less than that : it was more the premonition of a scent than the scent itself – and at the same time it was definitely a premonition of something he had never smelled before. He backed up against the wall, closed his eyes and flared his nostrils. The scent was so exceptionally delicate and fine that he could not hold on to it; it continually eluded his perception, was masked by the powder-smoke of the petards, blocked by the exudations of the crowd, fragmented and crushed by the thousands of other city odours. But then, suddenly, it was there again, a mere shred, the whiff of a magnificent premonition for only a second…and it vanished at once. Grenoiulle suffered agonies. For the first time, it was not just that his greedy nature was offended, but his very heart ached. He had the prescience of something extraordinary – this scent was the key for ordering all odours, one could understand nothing about odours if one did not understand this one scent…
…He tried to recall something comparable, but had to discard all comparisons. This scent had a freshness, but not the freshness of limes or pomegranates, nor the freshness of myrrh or cinnamon bark or curly mint or birch or camphor or pine needles, nor that of a May rain or a frosty wind or of well water…and at the same time it had warmth, but not as bergamot, cypress or musk has, or jasmine or narcissi, not as rosewood has or iris…This scent was a blend of both, of evanescence and substance, not a blend, but a unity, although slight and frail as well, and yet solid and sustaining, like a piece of thin, shimmering silk…and yet again not like silk, but like pastry soaked in honey-sweet milk – and try as he would he couldn’t fit those two together : milk and silk! This scent was inconceivable, indescribable, could not be categorized in any way – it really ought not to exist at all. And yet there it was as plain and splendid as day. Grenouille followed it, his fearful heart pounding, for he suspected that it was not he who followed the scent, but the scent that had captured him and was drawing him irresistibly to it.
…Strangely enough, the scent was not much stronger. It was only purer, and in its augmented purity, it took on an even greater power of attraction.

The Power of Scent
…people could close their eyes to greatness, to horrors, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving words. But they could not escape scent. For scent was a brother of breath. Together with breath it entered human beings, who could not defend themselves against it, not if they wanted to live. And scent entered into their very core, went directly to their hearts, and decided for good and all between affection and contempt, disgust and lust, love and hate. He who ruled scent ruled the hearts of men.

Coaxing the fragrance

Jasmine season began at the end of July, August was for tuberoses. The perfume of these two flowers was both so exquisite and so fragile that not only did the blossoms have to be picked before sunrise, but they also demanded the most gentle and special handling. Warmth diminished their scent; suddenly to plunge them into hot, macerating oil would have completely destroyed it. The souls of these noblest of blossoms could not be simply ripped from them, they had to be methodically coaxed away.

Chaining scents and preserving their freedom

There are scents that linger for decades. A cupboard rubbed with musk, a piece of leather drenched with cinnamon oil, a blob of ambergis, a cedar chest – they all possess virtually eternal olfactory life. While other things – lime oil, bergamot, jonquil and tuberose extracts, and many floral scents – evaporate within a few hours if they are exposed to the air in a pure, unbound form. The perfumer counteracts this fatal circumstance by binding scents that are too volatile by putting them in chains, so to speak, taming their urge for freedom – though his art consists of leaving enough slack in the chains for the odour seemingly to preserve its freedom, even when it is tied so deftly that it cannot flee. Grenouille had once succeeded in performing this feat perfectly with some tuberose oil, whose ephemeral scent he had chained with tiny quantities of civet, vanilla, labdanum and cypress – only then did it truly come into its own.

On a Beautiful Girl

She was indeed a girl of exquisite beauty. She was one of those languid women made of dark honey, smooth and sweet and terribly sticky, who take control of a room with a syrupy gesture, a toss of the hair, a single slow whiplash of the eyes – and all the while remain as still as the centre of a hurricane, apparently unaware of the force of gravity by which they irresistibly attract to themselves the yearnings and the souls of both men and women.

On Waiting

…it had always seemed to him that you stayed awake not so that you could take care of these occasional tasks, but because being awake had its own unique purpose. Even here in this bedchamber, where the process of enfleurage was proceeding all on its own, where in fact premature checking, turning or poking the fragrant package could only cause trouble – even here, it seemed to Grenouille, his waking presence was important. Sleep would have endangered the spirit of success.
It was not especially difficult for him to stay awake and wait, despite his weariness. He loved this waiting…it was not a dull waiting-till-it’s-over, not even a yearning, expectant waiting, but an attendant, purposeful, in a certain sense active waiting. Something was happening while you waited. The most essential thing was happening. And even if he himself was doing nothing, it was happening through him nevertheless. He had done his best. He had employed all his artistic skill. He had made not one single mistake. His performance had been unique. It would be crowned with success…He need only wait a few more hours. It filled him with profound satisfaction, this waiting. He had never felt so fine in all his life, so peaceful, so steady, so whole and at one with himself – not even back inside his mountain – as during these hours when a craftsman took his rest sitting in the dark of night… waiting and watching. They were the only moments when something like cheerful thoughts formed inside his gloomy brain.

The Movie

I saw the movie version of ‘Perfume’ after reading the book. The movie was faithful to the book, with respect to the overall story, but in many places the finer details of the story were changed a bit so that the story could work better in the visual medium. Also, some of the minor characters and subplots were dispensed away with, which was sad. Also, some of the characters in the movie looked very different when compared to the way they were depicted in the book – for example, Giuseppe Baldini was very different in the movie when compared to the book and so was Dominique Druot. Ben Wishaw, who played the role of the poet John Keats in Jane Campion’s ‘Bright Star’, plays the role of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille and does well. The movie also brings 18th century France to life, quite realistically and beautifully. I felt that one of the limitations of the movie was in translating the olfactory experience described in the novel to the visual experience on screen. I felt it didn’t work so well in the movie as it did in the novel – maybe that is a tribute to Süskind’s genius. But the movie, seen as a standalone, is quite good. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars (out of four) and so it must be something.

Final Thoughts

I liked ‘Perfume’ very much. (Thanks Bina for recommending it :)) I think I will add it to my list of favourite books and I will read my favourite passages in the book again. I will also try to get hold of other books by Patrick Süskind (especially ‘The Story of Mr.Sommer’) and read them. If you want to explore German literature and like exquisite prose, you will love this book.

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I discovered ‘Night Train to Lisbon’ when I was browsing books in the new arrivals section of my favourite bookshop a few months back. The storyline on the book’s back cover and the picture on the front cover caught my attention and I couldn’t resist it. I have been reading it for the past few weeks and finished reading it today. Here is the review.
 
Summary of the story
 
I am giving below the summary of the story as given in the back cover of the book.
When, one afternoon, mild-mannered and middle-aged Classics scholar Raimund Gregorius walks out of his classroom while giving a lesson, his impulsiveness surprises him as much as it does his students. This break from his hitherto predictable routine is inspired by two chance encounters – the first with a mysterious Portuese woman, and the second with a book that he discovers in a dusty corner of an old bookshop, which contains the thoughts of an enigmatic Portuguese aristocrat. With the book as his talisman, Gregorius boards the night train to Lisbon on a journey to find out more about its author, Amadeu de Prado : who was the man whose words both haunt and compel him?
 
Hurtling through the dark, Night Train to Lisbon is a rich tale, wonderfully told, propelled by the mystery at its heart. (more…)

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