Described by the publishers as ‘a ground-breaking classic of post-war German literature’, Siblings is the first of Brigitte Reimann’s novels to be translated into English, and what an interesting rediscovery it is – bold, edgy and evocative with a style all of its own! Originally published in Germany in 1963, the novel is narrated by Elisabeth Arendt, a young, idealistic painter whose steadfast beliefs in the possibility of building an egalitarian socialist future in the GDR bring her into conflict with her beloved older brother, Uli, a disillusioned engineer.
Set in 1960, before the construction of the Berlin Wall, the novel is bookended by snippets from the same conservation between the siblings, giving the narrative a circular feel. While Elisabeth is determined to fashion a fulfilling life for herself in the East, Uli feels constrained by the Party structures and ways of working, fuelling his desire to defect to the West. Following an earlier association with a radical University Professor, Uli has been left with a black mark against his name; consequently, he can only find work as a glorified draughtsman, despite his excellent qualifications as an engineer.
‘It’s like being pricked with needles every day,’ he said, ‘which is worse than being stabbed by a dagger…’ (p. 74)
In his desire to achieve creative freedom, Uli tells Elisabeth of his plans to cross the border, prompting the argument that kick-starts the book. From there, the narrative slips backwards and forwards in time, illustrating how the siblings have arrived at this point.
With her keen eye for a painterly image, Reimann skilfully evokes the siblings’ childhood memories in a vivid, evocative style.
Blossoming cherry trees in the garden, the sandpit with our red and blue tin toys; a wall covered in ivy, and, at its foot between the broad-leafed, violet vines, we gather snail shells in the damp, black leaf mould; (pp. 4-5)
By her early twenties, Elisabeth is working at an industrial plant in the East, holding painting classes for the workers at her artist’s studio. There is some lovely descriptive writing here, capturing the stark beauty of the industrial landscapes and the workers in situ.
I worked urgently, haphazardly and unsystematically, drawn to the arc of the bridges and the prosaic curve of the cooling towers on delicately braced struts, or lured by the mellow colours under the blue September sky. I painted watercolours to catch the innocent colour of that man-made landscape; I sketched the welders on our factory floor, and the carpenters wearing velvet waistcoats over their suntanned, bare torsos, and the girls waiting and chatting on the road to the factory works, their hair tousled and skirts ballooning in sharp gusts of wind. (p. 81)
With politics playing a central role in the novel, Elisabeth soon finds herself at odds with the authorities when she criticises an older painter – a man favoured by the Party – for his outmoded depiction of activists. When the artist in question reports Elisabeth to the Stasi, she fights to defend her more modern style of creative expression – one imbued with layers of feeling. Moreover, it is rumoured that she has formed a bourgeois faction within the workers, a subversive group with the power to disrupt. Nevertheless, Elisabeth successfully defends her position, allowing her vivid artworks to speak for themselves.
Also of note is Elisabeth’s eldest brother, Konrad, whose earlier defection to the West has unsettled Elisabeth, prompting worries that this might have fuelled Uli’s decision to follow suit. Although Konrad is now relatively settled in Hamburg, his path to freedom was not an easy one, adversely affecting his marriage to Charlotte (a fellow defector) – a relationship that now feels somewhat ambivalent at best. In a particularly striking sequence, Elisabeth and her mother cross the border to meet Konrad in West Belin. Perhaps unsurprisingly, brother and sister clash over their contradictory political views and ideals, prompting Elisabeth to leave the reunion early. Only as she is waiting by the border for her mother does Elisabeth realise what a divided Germany really means.
By the novel’s conclusion, Elisabeth has enlisted the help of her boyfriend, Joachim, to persuade Uli to stay – a move likely to force a wedge between the two siblings, irrespective of Uli’s final decision. In many respects, the novel is about separations and divided loyalties – divisions that cleave open the fault lines between the East and the West, from the political and ideological to the emotional and physical.
Siblings unfolds through a jagged, fractured narrative, blending realism with flashes of modernism – an unusual style that makes this novella a highly evocative read. Reimann skilfully captures the atmosphere of Elisabeth’s world, complete with the sights, sounds and smells of life in East Germany. Interestingly, it’s not quite the grim, colourless picture one might expect.
In the evenings, Lukas came over from the neighbouring compound. He brought a few brigade people with him, and we nattered over peppermint tea and, sometimes, cheap, bitter-smelling miner’s schnapps. The window stood ajar, and the mild evening air drove in the breath of the forest, with its tangy smell of mushrooms and damp moss. We heard the deep, dark hum of the pine trees in the wind, the tootling of an accordion and, on paydays, laughter and drunken singing from the beer parlour. (pp. 35–36)
Like Elisabeth, Reimann had to balance her desires for creative expression and freedom against the constraints of the prevailing authorities. In the brief biography accompanying the Penguin Classics edition, we learn that Reimann was just thirty-nine when she died of cancer. As a passionate young writer keen to depict the realities of life in socialist East Germany, Reimann wished to live ’30 wild years instead of 70 well-behaved ones’. If Siblings is anything to go by, it appears she achieved her aim, making a case for cult status through her exciting feminist voice.
(My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.)
This sounds very fascinating. We seem to live in deeply divided times at present and in some ways this novel, although dealing with a particular time when Germany was literally divided in two, seems like it could have a wider resonance.
Yes, very much so. I get the sense that similar stories (e.g. families divided by competing loyalties) are playing out in various parts of the world at the moment, not least in Europe…
This sounds very much like my thing – which is just as well as I bought a copy last week! Very much looking forward to reading it.
Yes, definitely your kind of thing, Grant. I’m curious to see what you think of it! (Are you a Christian Petzold fan, by any chance? He did the film adaptation of the Anna Seghers novel ‘Transit’ a few years ago, plus ‘Phoenix’ and ‘Barbara’. Anyway, I was just saying on Twitter that Siblings feels right up his street, as a possibility for the screen!)
Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
Sounds a really interesting read and still highly relevant to understanding German attitudes today.
Yes, I don’t think I’ve read very much about life in the GDR at this time, so its a fascinating insight into the tensions of this period. And, as you say, it still feels relevant to some of the conflicts we see today…
Already on my radar thanks to early coverage in the Guardian but you’ve whetted my appetite further, Jacqui.
Yes, you’re right. That Guardian piece was really interesting. Just posting a link here for others to read:
I hope you enjoy the book, Susan – it’s a striking read!
Wonderful review, Jacqui – this one’s doing the rounds and had caught my attention but you’ve convinced me it’s one for me. The quotes, the setting, the structure all sound right up my street!
Yes, I think you’d appreciate this one, Karen. The style, with its combination of realism and flashes of modernism, is really interesting, and I think you can tell that Reimann was an artist herself, as her use of colour and visual imagery is very striking. Interestingly, I read Siblings at around the same time as a second visit to the Making Modernism exhibition at the Royal Academy, showcasing the work of four female Modernists (they all worked in Germany in the early 20th century). A different era to Riemann’s book, but they’re kind of in conversation with one another in my head!
Sounds very engaging, Jacqui. I can’t imagine living through that–the East/West Germany divide. A few German TV series have really given me a better sense, though, of how difficult those times were.
Yes, it must have been so hard…
A slightly later setting in terms of time period, but I couldn’t help but think of Christian Petzold’s film ‘Barbara’, which I suspect you’ve seen.
Yes I have. I’m a Nina Hoss fan.
Me too. I loved her in Tar!
My fav role: A Girl Called Rosemarie.
Not a film I’m familiar with. Will look it up – thanks)
This sounds wonderful—and obviously the translator’s done an amazing job too, I love those excerpts!
Yes, the writing’s terrific – and, as you say, the translation seems excellent, very evocative. I think Lucy Jones has been very instrumental in getting Riemann’s work reissued over here, which is great to see.
This sounds really interesting, looking at the East/West German split through the lens of the personal. Have you seen the tv series Deutschland 83? This made me think of that, the tone is probably very different but the idea that the GDR was not simply grim is a similar one.
Great review, as always.
Thanks, Bii. I have seen Deutschland 83 but not the subsequent series (86 and 89, I think!). They’re probably on All 4, so I may well take a look…
This sounds most interesting. I always like the work of Christa Wolf who remained in East Germany and this also brings to mind the film Stasiland. And what a stunning cover!
The cover is wonderful, isn’t it? So vivid and evocative – and a great fit for the book with Elisabeth being an artist. Oddly enough, Christa Wolf has been on my radar for a while, but I’ve yet to try her. There could well be parallels/resonances between her work and that of Riemann, so it would be interesting to see…
I would recommend The Quest for Christa T
Noted – thank you!
Ooh, that beautifully descriptive writing in those quotes, shows me this is a writer I would like. The political themes also interest me. Germany before the wall came down remains fascinating.
Yes, definitely a fascinating period of history, and Reimann seems to capture the competing tensions so well. The divided loyalties and families are evocatively evoked.
What a wonderful cover! And this sounds fascinating, though I’m not always good with a fractured narrative …
Yes, the style might not be for you, Liz. The cover is so eye-catching, isn’t it? A very clever choice by the team at Penguin.
The cover is absolutely fantastic, as others have noted. And what a plot! How heartbreaking it is, especially to the younger generation, when a regime that seems fresh with promise turns out to be repressive. We had that happen to friends from Iran when the Shah was overthrown.
That’s such a interesting comparison…I think you’re right to highlight the wider resonance of this story, especially in a world when divisions and certain elements of oppression remain rife.
This sounds a wonderful read, the quotes are so well-observed and evocative. The premise could have been so clunky but it sounds like she had a very skilled light touch.
Yes, it’s very evocative. I think it’s possible to tell that Reimann was an artist as her use of imagery really shines through.
It’s so good to see literary gems like this being rediscovered and brought back to life for a new readership. I was intrigued when I read of this book and am pleased to read that you enjoyed it, a wonderful evocative review.
Thanks, Claire. Yes, it’s great to see it back in print, especially in such a striking edition. I think Penguin may well reissue more of Reimann’s work in the future, so fingers crossed for another rediscovered gem or two.
I’m late to this party, as I’m behind (again) in my blog reading! My tardiness in catching your review, however, didn’t keep me from enjoying it very much! It particularly caught my eye, as I’d just read the Guardian’s review and immediately ordered my own copy of Siblings, which is now sitting on the TBR pile. My edition (which took some time to arrive) is from Transit Books, a “new to me” publisher; while it’s the same translation, it does not, alas, have the wonderful cover of the Penguin. Although I’m a bit sorry about the art work, Transit is a happy discovery, as it’s a non-profit publisher specializing in international titles.
I loved your quotes BTW, which confirm that this is a novel I don’t want to miss!
Glad to hear that you have a copy of this one, Janakay, as I’ll be very interested to hear what you think. The quotes are great, aren’t they? Very vivid and evocative. I think you can tell that Reimann was an artist as the narrative feels very visual, almost like a series of scenes with gaps in between. I remember reading something that the English writer Elizabeth Taylor once said about how she visualised her novels in terms of scenes. Maybe Reimann thought that way too, painting pictures in her mind to help to construct the story…
Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal