Tag Archives: #GermanLitMonth

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

I have long wanted to read the German writer Irmgard Keun, ever since Grant and TJ started to cover some of her books – Gilgi and After Midnight – on their respective blogs. Then last summer, Karen reviewed another of Keun’s novels, The Artificial Silk Girl, and when I read her post, I knew this was the one for me – well, as a starting point at the very least. Reputedly inspired by Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, one that ultimately shows us the darker side of life which lies beneath the glamour of the capital city, Berlin.

First published in 1932, Silk Girl is narrated by Doris, a striking young woman whose voice I found utterly engaging right from the very start. It reflects her complex personality – a glorious mix of the naïve and the streetwise, the vivacious and the vulnerable. Doris longs for the finer things in life, fashionable clothes and accessories, the bright lights and the big city. She dreams of becoming a successful actress in the movies. Instead, she’s stuck in a provincial town, in a dead-end office job she’s barely qualified for, trading on her charms and good looks to keep on the right side of the boss. Moreover, Doris is forced to pass the majority of her wages to her lazy father who promptly uses the money to get drunk. What little is left over goes on a treat, in this case a new hat – well, a girl’s got to keep up appearances, especially if she wants to get ahead.

But I immediately bought a hat for myself with the 50 marks I had left, with a feather and in forest green – that’s this season’s fashion color, and it goes fabulously well with my rosy complexion. And wearing it off to the side is just so chic, and I already had a forest green coat made for myself – tailored with a fox collar – a present from Käsemann, who absolutely almost wanted to marry me. But I didn’t. Because in the long run, I’m too good for the short and stocky type, particularly if they’re called Käsemann. But now my outfit is complete, which is the most important thing for a girl who wants to get ahead and has ambition. (p. 5)

Shortly after getting the push from her job by knocking back the advances of an amorous attorney, Doris lands a small break as an ‘extra’ with the theatre company in her hometown. Once there, she uses all her womanly wiles and a few white lies to move forward, securing a walk-on part with a spoken line in the process. However, it’s not long however before Doris is found out, leaving her no other option but to hightail it to Berlin with little more than a stolen fur coat for company. On her arrival, she is dazzled by the new environment, the sights and sounds of this glamorous city.

Berlin is so wonderful. I would like to be a Berliner and belong here. The Resi, which is behind Blumenstrasse, isn’t a restaurant really. It’s all colors and whirling lights, it’s a beer belly that’s all lit up, it’s a tremendous piece of art. You can find that sort of thing only in Berlin. You have to picture everything in red and shimmery, more and more and more, and incredibly sophisticated. (p. 77)

All too soon the harsh realities of life kick in and Doris finds herself moving from one temporary room to another, her fortunes ebbing and flowing according to the generosity (or not) of the people she encounters along the way. With the police possibly on her tail and no official papers to hand, Doris knows it would be difficult for her to find a short-term job – in any case, she doesn’t particularly want one, not if her previous experiences of conventional work are anything to go by. There are various encounters with men – some kind and charming, others less so – but the most promising ones always seem to have a wife or another woman tucked away somewhere. Doris is smart enough to know her own value, so she uses her looks and personality to blag herself some decent clothes and a few drinks every now and again. Even though life in the city can be tough and lonely, Doris is determined to follow her own path in an effort to get on. The conventions of marriage and domesticity are not for her, something she learned a while ago by observing the lives of those other girls back home.

But it’s a good thing that I’m unhappy, because if you’re happy you don’t get ahead. I learned that from Lorchen Grünlich, who married the accountant at Grobwind Brothers and is happy with him and her shabby tweed coat and one bedroom apartment and flower pots with cuttings and Gugelhupf on Sundays and stamped paper which is all the accountant allows her to use, just to sleep with him at night and have a ring. (p. 69)

Rather cleverly, the story is conveyed through a series of reflections, ostensibly presented as a set of journal entries that capture Doris’ thoughts as she strives to survive. In some respects, Doris is like a camera, recording and portraying the highs and lows of life in Berlin. There are some dazzling passages here, presented in a compelling stream-of-consciousness style, particularly the impressionistic sections in which Doris relays the vibrancy of Berlin to her blind neighbour, Herr Brenner, complete with all its characteristic lights and colours. The journal entries also reveal elements of Doris’ backstory – in particular, her impoverished and less-than-happy childhood – along with her sharp observations on the social order of the day, especially the situation for women. The last quote is a great example of this critique of society’s views and expectations.

While the narrative begins in a very breezy, upbeat manner, the tone darkens significantly as the story progresses. The initial surface glamour of life in Berlin soon falls away, leaving Doris hungry for a little food, warmth and affection – things she knows she may have to rely on a man to provide.

So they have courses teaching you foreign languages and ballroom dancing and etiquette and cooking. But there are no classes to learn how to be by yourself in a furnished room with chipped dishes, or how to be alone in general without any words of concern or familiar sounds. (p. 118)

Keun’s heroine has been likened to Sally Bowles from Christopher Isherwood’s seminal novel Goodbye to Berlin. While there are undoubtedly similarities between the two characters, particularly in terms of their attitudes and the Weimar-era setting in which they find themselves, the women I was most reminded of while reading Silk Girl were those from the works of Jean Rhys. In this scene, Doris is so desperate that she allows herself to be picked up by a man, a stranger who stops her in the street, probably in the belief that she is a prostitute. It could have come straight out of one of Rhys’ early stories.

And we talked to each other at a restaurant and I was supposed to order wine and I would much rather have had something to eat. But that’s just like them – they don’t mind paying large sums for something to drink, but as soon as they have to pay just a small amount for something to eat they feel taken advantage of, because food is a necessity, but having a drink is superfluous and therefore elegant. (pp. 125-126)

All in all, The Artificial Silk Girl is a very impressive novel, an evocative insight into a city on the cusp of political change – in this respect, it would make a great companion piece to the Isherwood I mentioned a little earlier. Doris is such a wonderful creation, an instinctive woman who turns out to be more sensitive and fragile than she appears at first sight. (In fact, the book itself is also much deeper than its initial breeziness suggests – more thoughtful and considered in many respects.) It can be so hard to strike the right note with a first-person narrative, but Keun nails it here, giving us a very convincing portrait of this feisty yet vulnerable girl about town.

I read this novel for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month which is running throughout November – there’s some info about it here. If you’re interested in learning more about Irmgard Keun, you might want to take a look at Max’s review of Volker Wiedermann’s book, Summer Before the Dark, which includes passages covering Keun’s relationship with the writer Joseph Roth, whom she met in Ostend 1936. It’s a very poignant story, all the more so because we know what was looming on the horizon for the years that followed.

The Artificial Silk Girl is published by Other Press; personal copy.

Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig (tr. Anthea Bell)

Last summer I read Stefan Zweig’s 1938 novel, Beware of Pity. It was a book group choice, one that gave rise to a really interesting debate about the moral dilemma at the centre of the story: should we tell the truth and risk crushing a vulnerable person’s spirit, or is it better to go with the flow in the hope of keeping their dreams alive? (There’s no easy answer to this question, btw – hence the power of the book.) While I loved the author’s prose style, I couldn’t help but wonder if Pity was a little too drawn out, a touch overwrought and melodramatic at times. It left me with the feeling that Zweig might be better suited to the short form, more specifically novellas and stories. First published in German in 1913, Burning Secret is one of his novellas and a terrific one at that. Let me tell you a little about it.

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As the book opens, the Baron – one of three key players in the story – is approaching the town of Semmering in Austria where he will be spending a week’s holiday. On his arrival at his hotel, the Baron is disappointed to discover that none of the other guests are known to him. He was hoping for some congenial company, an amusing distraction of some description to help pass the time. It is quite clear from the off that the Baron is something of a lady-killer, the type of dashing young man who enjoys the thrill of the chase. In an extended passage, Zweig presents a portrait of a man always on the alert for the next ‘erotic opportunity’, a seasoned huntsman who takes great pleasure in stalking his prey before going in for the kill.

Luckily for the Baron, he doesn’t have to wait too long before the rustle of a silk gown is audible in the background. Into the hotel dining room comes a tall, voluptuous woman, a type the Baron likes very much. While the lady in question is past her prime, there is a touch of the faded beauty about her, a sort of ‘elegant melancholy’ for want of a better phrase. In spite of the fact that the lady is accompanied by her young son, twelve-year-old Edgar, the Baron’s interest is immediately aroused. In the very subtle scene that follows, the interplay between the Baron and Edgar’s mama starts to unfold. It is abundantly clear that the lady has noticed her admirer even though she pretends otherwise.

The huntsman in him scented prey. Challengingly, his eyes now sought to meet hers, which sometimes briefly returned his gaze with sparkling indecision as she looked past him, but never gave a clear, outright answer. He thought he also detected the trace of a smile beginning to play around her mouth now and then, but none of that was certain, and its very uncertainty aroused him. The one thing that did strike him a promising was her constant refusal to look him in the eye, betraying both resistance and self-consciousness, and then there was the curiously painstaking way she talked to her child, which was clearly meant for an onlooker, Her persistent façade of calm, he felt, meant in itself that she was beginning to feel troubled. He too was excited; the game had begun. (pp. 13-14)

Having set his sights on the mama, the Baron sees young Edgar as a potential route of access to his prey. By making friends with the boy, the Baron hopes to facilitate an introduction to the mama, thereby making it easier to move things along a little more quickly. Zweig has a wonderful knack for capturing a character in just two or three sentences (he does this with all three of the main players in this story). Here is his description of Edgar, a passage that perfectly captures the awkwardness of a young boy in his own skin.

He was a shy, awkward, nervous boy of about twelve with fidgety movements and dark, darting eyes. Like many children of that age, he gave the impression of being alarmed, as if he had just been abruptly woken from sleep and suddenly put down in strange surroundings. (p. 17)

At twelve years of age, young Edgar is on the threshold of adolescence, longing to be viewed as a grown-up, someone who is independent of his mother. At this age, every little thing means the world to a boy like Edgar; his emotions are big and deeply felt, with a tendency towards either wild enthusiasm and affection or outright hostility and hatred.

He did not seem to adopt a moderate stance to anything, and spoke of everyone or everything either with enthusiasm or a dislike so violent that it distorted his face, making him look almost vicious and ugly. (p. 23)

When the Baron takes a shine to Edgar, the boy is flattered and entranced. Edgar has been brought to the resort to recover from an illness, and with no other children of his age in sight he is clearly very lonely. Before long, he is following the Baron everywhere, desperate to spend time with his new friend. The Baron for his part finds it ridiculously easy to win the boy’s confidence. He knows full well he is using Edgar as a pawn in the game to seduce his target, but he shows precious little concern for any collateral damage that might occur along the way.

Sure enough the desired introduction takes place, and before long all three visitors are spending quite a bit of time together at the resort. All too quickly though, Edgar notices the blossoming of a different type of relationship between his mama and the Baron, a development he finds both puzzling and frustrating. Why has his mama stolen his new friend away from him? Why are the two grown-ups always trying to sneak off by themselves, sending Edgar off on errands on his own? And what is the burning secret they appear to be concealing from him? In some ways, this secret seems to represent the key to adulthood, something mysterious and forbidden and potentially dangerous.

I don’t want to say anything more about the plot as it might spoil the story. What’s so impressive about this novella is the insight Zweig gives us into the psychological motives behind the actions of each of the main characters. While the book is written in the third person, the point of view moves around at various points in the story to focus on the Baron, young Edgar and the boy’s mama. The dynamics between the three players are constantly shifting, and they are a delight to observe.

In some ways, Burning Secret is the story of the loss of a young boy’s innocence. In that respect in shares something in common with L. P. Hartley’s excellent novel The Go-Between (in fact at one point in the book, the Baron actually refers to Edgar as his go-between, if only in his thoughts). Young Edgar is desperate to understand the seemingly exciting world of adulthood and everything it represents. Only this world comes with significant dangers and uncertainties, the threat of pain alongside the promise of pleasure. By the end of Burning Secret, Edgar is happy to retreat back into the sanctity of childhood for a while, a place where he feels safe and secure.

In another sense, Zweig’s novella has something to say about the dangers of succumbing to the lure of desire. While not unaccustomed to the occasional flirtation, Edgar’s mama finds herself dangerously close to being pulled into an emotional whirlpool, a vertiginous and violent force seems all set to sweep her away. At one point, she realises that Edgar may have picked up a sense of what is happening, a thought that causes her to pause. For Edgar’s mama, time is running out. This might be her last chance of a dalliance before resigning herself to life without passion. (There are clear hints that all is not entirely rosy between Edgar’s mama and her husband.)

Burning Secret is an excellent novella, full of little shifts in the power base and interplay between the three central characters. In that sense, it has something in common with Beware of Pity, but Secret feels like a subtler, more nuanced piece of work.

To finish, a few words about Zweig’s prose. He has a wonderful turn of phrase, a real ability to capture a moment or an emotion in just one line. Here are a few of my favourites.

In his happy dreams, childhood was left behind, like a garment he had outgrown and thrown away. (Edgar, p. 30)

On his own he was frosty, no use to himself at all, like a match left lying in its box. (The Baron, p. 11)

Everything in the air and on the earth was in movement, seething with impatience. (The mood and setting, p. 10) 

I read this book for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month – here are some links to previous reviews by Guy and Max.

Burning Secret is published by Pushkin Press; personal copy.

Schlump by Hans Herbert Grimm (tr. Jamie Bulloch)

In 1928, German schoolmaster Hans Herbert Grimm anonymously published his first and only book, the semi-autobiographical anti-war novel, Schlump. Despite its obvious literary merits, Schlump was somewhat overshadowed at the time by the success of another WW1 novel, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (somewhat ironically, the two books were issued within weeks of each other). In the early 1930s, Schlump was burned by the Nazis. In an effort to keep his authorship of the book a secret, Grimm concealed the original manuscript of Schlump in the wall of his house in Germany where it remained until its discovery in 2013. Now, thanks to the efforts of Vintage Books, NYRB Classics and the translator Jamie Bulloch, a whole new generation of readers can experience this rediscovered classic for themselves. Given the book’s history, it seemed a fitting choice for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Lit Month which is running throughout November.

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The novel itself focuses on the wartime experiences of Emil Schulz (known to all as ‘Schlump’), a bright and eager young man who volunteers for the German infantry on his seventeenth birthday. In August 1915, Schlump sets off for the barracks in readiness for the adventures ahead. Perhaps like many other young men at that time, he has a rather romanticised vision of life as a soldier, a view which is typified by the following passage.

He could picture himself in a field-grey uniform, the girls eyeing him up and offering him cigarettes. Then he would go to war. He pictured the sun shining, the grey uniforms charging, one man falling the others surging forward further with their cries and cheers, and pair after pair of red trousers vanishing beneath green hedges. In the evenings the soldiers would sit around a campfire and chat about life at home. One would sing a melancholy song. Out in the darkness the double sentries would stand at their posts, leaning on the muzzles of their rifles, dreaming of home and being reunited with loved ones. In the morning they’d break camp and march singing into battle, where some would fall and others be wounded. Eventually the war would be won and they’d return home victorious. Girls would throw flowers from windows and the celebrations would never end. (pp. 6-7)

As luck would have it, Schlump’s first experience of war turns out to be a fairly gentle one. Armed with his school-leaver’s certificate and a grasp of the local language, Schlump is posted to Loffrande in France where he is put in charge of the administration of three villages, a task he soon gets to grips with, overseeing the work of the villagers and intervening in various matters in need of his attention. A good man at heart, Schlump gets on well with the locals, especially the rather high-spirited young girls who see to it that he is not short of female companionship.

Everything is relatively peaceful here in the countryside, so much so that it would be relatively easy for our protagonist to forget his true status as a soldier were it not for the faint rumble of cannons in the background. Sadly though, all good things must come to an end, and after a season in Loffrande, Schlump hears that he is to be sent to the Front. Somewhat understandably, he feels a mixture of anger and disappointment; in some ways, it is almost like leaving home for a second time. As a sergeant from the service corps says before Schlump departs for the battlefield, ‘Only fools end up in the trenches, or those who’ve been in trouble.’

The relative calm of Schlump’s introduction to life as a soldier only serves to accentuate the horrors that follow. Like Remarque, Grimm doesn’t hold back on the true nature of life in the trenches; the physical and mental effects of war are conveyed here in a fair bit of detail. In this scene, Schlump’s regiment is under attack from the British (the Tommies).

One, two! Those were the small shells; now the heavy one would be on its way. Yes, there it was. A terrible explosion, and Schlump was given a sharp jolt by the wall he was leaning against. A loud boom came from the dugout. Schlump teetered forward. The heavy shell had hit the machine-gun nest and the hand grenades had exploded. Two soldiers shot high into the sky; Schlump had a clear view of them, their arms and legs spread-eagled. And around the two bodies innumerable tiny black dots reeled: fragments of stone and dirt. Everything landed on the Tommies’ side. The trench was completely destroyed. There was no trace of the other two machine gunners. Schlump crawled out of the rubble and checked that his legs were still in one piece. (pp.114-115)

Grimm is particularly strong on the gruelling, precarious rhythm of life in the trenches: the constant exhaustion from operating on two hours sleep; the additional discomfort from rampant infestations of lice; the seemingly never-ending periods of standing guard; the perpetual feeling of exposure; the fetching and carrying of food, most of which gets spilled on the battlefield (that’s if it makes it at all – in some instances the carriers will die or suffer severe injuries en route).

Schlump does not escape the war unharmed; there are a couple of occasions when he is hospitalised and sent back to Germany to recuperate, periods which also serve to highlight the debilitating effects of war on those left behind. During a brief visit home, Schlump finds his father a mere shadow of the man he once was, forced to work in a factory as no one is in need of the services of a tailor any more.

In spite of everything the war has to throw at him, Schlump remains, for the most part, optimistic. Only once or twice does his spirit come close to fracturing, most notably when a pregnant girl is killed by a bomb while crossing the marketplace in her village, an act which provokes a sense of outrage and dismay at the cruelty of war. Moreover, Schlump is not blind to the hypocrisy of those in charge of the foot soldiers, the higher-ups who shield themselves from any personal danger or discomfort. The contrast in the following passage is plain to see.

And then that time when they’d been resting, when the first company had returned from the front trenches, those wretched fellows had looked ghastly: emaciated, ashen-faced, grubby chalk worked around the stubble, stooped, utterly worn out, filthy, terribly filthy, lice-ridden and bloody, and only twenty men left of the sixty who’d been positioned on the front line. These men were standing by their quarters when the fat sergeant major came out, who’s spent each one of the twelve nights playing cards and getting drunk. This sergeant major, the mother superior of the company came and ranted at them as if they were common criminals. If that wasn’t contempt, then what was? (pp. 120-121)

The somewhat episodic nature of this novel makes it difficult to capture in a review. In many ways, it reads like a series of vignettes centering on Schlump’s experiences of the war from 1915-18. My Vintage Books edition of Schlump comes with an excellent afterword by the German writer Volker Weidermann – author of Summer Before the Dark, a book set before the start of WW2 – who describes Grimm’s novel as a docu-fable. It’s an apt description, particularly given the nature of the some of the episodes in the book. There is a fable-like quality to several of the tales and stories peppered throughout the narrative. Almost every character Schlump encounters has a story to tell, an anecdote or myth of some sort, a feature which adds to a feeling of the margins being blurred. In certain instances, it is not always easy to distinguish between what is meant to be ‘real’ and what is more likely to be a horrific nightmare or fantasy of some sort.

I’m very glad to have discovered this book via Grant’s excellent review last year. Schlump is a very endearing character, forever the scallywag, the chancer and the dreamer, always looking to sneak away from his place of confinement in search of girls. In spite of the undeniable horrors of war, Grimm brings a great deal of humour to this story, especially the first part of the book when his protagonist is stationed in France. There is a sense of universality about this story, almost as though Schlump could have been any soldier in any regiment in the Great War. It’s one of the things that makes this novel so relevant to readers everywhere, irrespective of their nationality.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

First published in German in 1929, Grand Hotel is Austrian writer Vicki Baum’s best-known work. Following its initial success, this charming novel was quickly adapted for the stage, and subsequently for the cinema screen, with significant input from Baum herself – the film adaptation (which I have yet to see) features Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and the Barrymore brothers, amongst others.

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The setting for the novel is the Grand Hotel in Berlin, an establishment which endeavours to furnish its residents with the best of everything the city has to offer. Baum’s carefully constructed story revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at the hotel. While it doesn’t aim to follow a conventional narrative arc, Grand Hotel has plenty of surprises in store for its readers, many of which are connected with the secrets and inner lives of this diverse group of guests.

The central character in the mix is Otto Kringelein, a down-at-heel bookkeeper who has travelled from the provinces to Berlin to live the high life for a week or two. After enduring many years of bullying and penny pinching both at work and at home, Kringelein has come to the city with the knowledge that he has only a few weeks left to live. Backed by funds from his savings and life insurance policy, Kringelein is intent on experiencing Life and everything it has to offer before his time is up. Here are his first impressions of his new environment, a passage which I hope will give you a feel for the Grand Hotel itself.

He stood there in his old overcoat, and through the lenses of his pince-nez eagerly devoured it all. He was as exhausted as the winner of a race when he breasts the tape, but he saw the marble pillars with stucco ornament, the illuminated fountain, the easy chairs. He saw men in dress coats and dinner jackets, smart cosmopolitan men. Women with bare arms, in wonderful clothes, with jewelry and furs, beautiful, well-dressed women. He heard music in the distance. He smelled coffee, cigarettes, perfume, whiffs of asparagus from the dining room and the flowers that were displayed for sale on the flower stall. He felt the thick carpet beneath his black leather boots, and this perhaps impressed him most of all. (pg. 13)

At first, Kringelein is befriended by another guest, Doctor Otternschlag, a lonely, embittered war veteran who comes to the bookkeeper’s aid when the hotel staff prove rather reluctant to give him a room. Once he realises that Kringelein’s days are numbered, Otternschlag offers to show him something of Berlin with a trip to the ballet and other civilised outings. Nevertheless, Kringelein cannot help but feel that ‘real life,’ whatever that may be, remains out of his reach.

All that changes when Kringelein crosses paths with the dashing Baron Gaigern, a charming young playboy who also happens to be staying at the hotel. I love this description of the Baron, which serves as an excellent introduction to this elegant womaniser.

There was a smell of lavender and expensive cigarettes, immediately followed by a man whose appearance was so striking that many heads turned to look at him. He was unusually tall and extremely well dressed, and his step was as elastic as a cat’s or a tennis champion’s. He wore a dark blue trench coat over his dinner jacket. This was scarcely correct perhaps, but it gave an attractively negligent air to his appearance. (pg. 6)

Everyone at the Grand Hotel is enchanted by the friendly Baron Gaigern, but little do they know that he is in fact a cat burglar on the lookout for rich pickings. Once he realises Kringelein is in the money, Gaigern sees an opportunity, and so he takes this somewhat fusty bookkeeper under his wing. At long last Kringelein begins to experience the thrill and excitement of the life he has been craving. Under the guidance of the worldly Baron, Kringelein is persuaded to invest in the finest of clothes, new silk shirts and beautifully tailored suits that transform him in an instant. Further delights soon follow: the adrenaline rush of a drive in a fast car; the adventure of an aeroplane flight; and the heady atmosphere of a night at a Berlin club. There is a touch of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day about the sense of vitality (not to mention nervousness) that Kringelein experiences in this new and exhilarating world.

Another character whose life is most definitely altered by an encounter with the Baron is Grusinskaya, an aged Russian ballet dancer and fellow guest at the Grand. Following years of success at the top of her game, Grusinskaya’s career is now on the slide as she finds herself playing to half-empty houses of unappreciative onlookers.

Madame sat in the little dressing room staring at the electric bulb that hung in a wire cage over the looking glass and consulted her memory. No, she thought gloomily, it was not such a success as at Brussels. She was tired to death. She stretched out her most limbs. She sat there, like a boxer who lies in his corner after a hard round, and let Suzette rub her down and chafe her and remove the paint. The dressing room was overheated, dirty, and small. It smelt of old dresses, of glue, of grease paint, of a hundred exhausted bodies. (pg. 26)

A little like Doctor Otternschlag, Grusinskaya is another lonely soul. That said, while past events have left the doctor feeling bitter and cynical, Grusinskaya has been dealt a slightly different hand. The lack of warmth and true love in her life has taken in toll, leaving this once great dancer somewhat vulnerable and fragile. Funnily enough, Grusinskaya is the real reason for Baron Gaigern’s visit to the Grand. The lovable young rogue is after the lady’s pearl necklace, an item rumoured to be worth in the region of 500,000 German marks. Nevertheless, when the Baron embarks on the job of stealing Grusinskaya’s jewellery, something rather surprising happens. To reveal anything more might be a step too far, so perhaps I can encourage you to read the book instead.

The final two characters are Preysing, General Manager of a provincial textiles company, and Flämmchen, the attractive young secretary he hires to assist him with some typing (and a little more besides). Somewhat intriguingly, Preysing is of particular interest to Kringelein as he happens to be the bookkeeper’s ultimate boss. While Kringelein has a score to settle with the GM, Preysing doesn’t even recognise him as one of his own employees when the two men come into contact with each other at the hotel. Preysing, a somewhat cold and unadventurous businessman at heart, has pressing troubles of his own. He has come to Berlin to negotiate a key business deal, a precarious merger with another company which he desperately needs to pull off. Flämmchen, on the other hand, is a breath of fresh air. Tired of looking for a permanent job, she knows her own value and longs to be in the movies. Like many of other characters here, Preysing and Flämmchen find their lives irrevocably altered by their time at the prestigious hotel.

Grand Hotel is an utterly delightful novel full of moments of light and significant darkness. Baum skilfully weaves her story together, moving from one character to another with great ease – her sense of characterisation is very strong. At the centre of the novel is the idea that our lives can change direction in surprising ways as a result of our interactions with others. We see fragments of the lives of these characters as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better; others are on their way down and emerge much diminished. What appears to be chance and the luck of the draw may in fact turn out to be a case of cause and effect. In some ways, the Grand is a metaphor for life itself, complete with the great revolving door which governs our daily existence. I’ll finish with a short quote that hints at this.

These unacknowledged acquaintanceships are always happening in hotel life. You brush against someone in the elevator; you meet again in the dining room, in the cloakroom, and in the bar; or you go in front of him or behind him through the revolving door—the door that never stops shoveling people in and shoveling them out. (pg. 190)

This is my first read for Biblibio’s Women in Translation Month, which is running throughout August. For other perspectives on this novel, here are links to reviews by Guy and Melissa. Update: Caroline has also reviewed it, link here, as has Emma here.

Grand Hotel is published by NYRB. My thanks to the publisher for kindly providing a review copy.

Mona Lisa by Alexander Lernet-Holenia (tr. Ignat Avsey)

A few years ago I was captivated by Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s novella I Was Jack Mortimer, a fast-moving, offbeat crime story set in 1930s Vienna. I read it pre-blog but it’s been widely reviewed elsewhere (especially since the release of a new edition in the Pushkin Vertigo livery towards the end of last year). Back in November 2015 Pushkin Press published another of Lernet-Holenia’s works, Mona Lisa, which I was lucky enough to receive for Christmas. It’s hugely enjoyable story told with much wit and verve, a perfect gift for lovers of art and literature.

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As the novella opens towards the end of 1502, the King of France is dispatching his Marshal, a certain Louis de la Trémoille, to Italy to assist two French governors following heavy losses at the hands of the Spaniards. King Louis XII assures La Trémoille that he will be ‘showered with glory,’ as he leads the French army to victory, spreading grandeur far and wide in the process. While the King is willing to fund the trip from the municipal reserves, he also trusts that La Trémoille will do everything in his power to recover the costs of the campaign, so much so that he leaves his Marshal with the following parting shot:

“…Be sure therefore that you levy from the territories for whose sake we are making such sacrifices all necessary and fitting reparations, be it in the form of direct payments or precious objects, jewels, costly tapestries and suchlike things. For this is my express wish and command…” (pg. 11, Pushkin Press)

Unlike an earlier Italian campaign – one that generated a significant haul of booty for the previous monarch – La Trémoille’s initial efforts give rise to very little in the way of money or valuable artefacts. As such he decides to spend a few days in Florence in the hope of procuring some suitable objects of art to placate the King. Despite finding art ‘a terrible bore’, La Trémoille hears of Leonardo Da Vinci’s reputation; and so, accompanied by a small posse of French and Italian noblemen, he decides to pay the great painter a visit.

It is at this point that the focus of Lernet-Holenia’s story shifts from La Trémoille to one of his companions, a young nobleman by the name of M. de Bougainville. During a highly amusing and somewhat farcical exchange between La Trémoille and Leonardo, Bougainville is charged with catching a fly in order to settle a difference of opinion. In so doing, Bougainville catches a glimpse of an unfinished painting, a portrait of a woman with a rare luminescence. It is, of course, the Mona Lisa, and Bougainville is instantly smitten.

The woman, whose face was turned towards the viewer, looked a little sideways to the left, where Bougainville stood, and she smiled. Her smile was enchanting and mysterious, as if glimpsed through fine shadows or a veil, though it exuded a luminosity which dazzled the eyes; and in the background, where sky-blue streams wound around huge mountains, the azure glow was more enchanting than the lustre of paradise. (pgs. 29-30)

Even though he has only seen her image for a few moments, Bougainville falls hopelessly in love with the woman in this painting, and so he questions Leonardo in an attempt to discover her identity. After a brief pause, Leonardo reveals the name ‘Giaconda’, adding that she is no one of consequence. On leaving the artist’s workshop, Bougainville probes the Florentines about this ‘Giaconda’ only to discover that the one possible candidate, Mona Lisa (the wife of a local gentleman named Giacondo), died some two or three years ago. Bougainville is crestfallen; he is desperate to believe that the woman at the heart of Leonardo’s painting is not Giacondo’s wife but another woman, a woman who might still be alive. Consequently, he decides to pay Leonardo another visit. On further questioning Leonardo maintains that his painting depicts Giaconda; and so Bougainville implores the painter to tell him everything he knows about the woman whose enigmatic beauty has captured his heart:

 “Oh,” Leonardo said, raising his eyebrows, “I knew her only fleetingly, and the picture of the woman before you is neither her nor anyone else. The truth is, even had I wanted to paint her, it would have immediately turned into the likeness of someone else. After all, one always paints women who never exist, and the same goes for women one really loves…” (pg. 40)

In spite of everything he has heard, Bougainville remains convinced that his Giaconda is still alive, a belief that only strengthens when he sees the painting once again; after all, as he says to Leonardo, that smile appears to be immortal. Here is a snippet from the painter’s response.

“…Every smile is a mystery, not only of itself, but in every other respect too. But I have no clue to this mystery. I know not what she is smiling at. […] Only the real is perfect.” And after a pause he added, “Not until the woman in this painting becomes real will it be said that she really smiles.” (pg 42)

Coming in at around eighty pages, Mona Lisa is a brief yet very satisfying story. As such, I’m a little wary of revealing too much about the plot. Let’s just say that Bougainville goes on a mission to discover whether his Giaconda is actually dead or still alive, a sequence of events that results in all manner of mayhem for our protagonist and his companions.

This is a very entertaining tale of the captivating power of art, of how we project our own emotions and feelings onto the images we see before us. It’s a charming tale about love, life, and the search for beauty. There are other pleasures to enjoy too, not least in the author’s descriptions of the Florentine milieu. In this scene, Bougainville is visiting the Basilica di Santa Croce in search of Giaconda’s tomb.

It was about midday when, accompanied by a servant who carried a garland of dark red roses, he entered the church. The Mass that was in progress was for late risers, the “scented Mass” as it was known, attended by richly turned-out and heavily perfumed nobility who actually came only to see and be seen, to criticize, to laugh and to gossip. As for the priest and what went on at the altar, no one bothered in the slightest. (pg. 45)

As well as being a very prolific novelist, Lernet-Holenia was also a screenwriter, and it shows in Mona Lisa; with its witty storyline and lively dialogue, this story would transfer very well to the stage or screen.

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Before I finish, just a few words on the physical book itself. This lovely Pushkin Press edition is beautifully illustrated by the graphic designer Neil Gower, whose wonderful little sketches are dotted throughout the story. As per usual with books in the Pushkin Collection, it is a gorgeous little thing – definitely something to treasure.

Grant (of 1streading) has also reviewed this novella.

Mona Lisa is published by Pushkin Press – first published in German in 1937. Source: Personal copy.

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Susan Bernofsky)

The story running through The End of Days, the latest novel from German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, features an intriguing premise. By following five different variations of the life of one woman, the novel examines the role chance plays in our lives. In doing so, it touches on various aspects of European history in the 20th century from the hardship in the years following WWI, to the rise in anti-Semitism, to the period following the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s an ambitious narrative, and Erpenbeck pulls it off to very good effect.

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The novel is divided into five books, each one covering a possible life of the woman in question. In the first variation of her life, our central character dies in her cradle just a few months after her birth in Galicia in 1902. (Galicia now straddles the Poland-Ukraine border, but was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time.) As her Jewish mother mourns the loss, her father (a Christian) drowns his sorrows in drink. Unable to come to terms with the tragedy, the father set sail for America, abandoning his wife in the process. The man’s arrival at Ellis Island’s immigration hall provides an opportunity for reflection on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a place where ‘German remained the language of democracy’ despite all the intermingling.  

The Kaiser, though, hadn’t selected the individuals to be let in; rather, he’d swallowed up entire peoples indiscriminately, making all of them part of his realm. Melancholia, madness, and unlawfulness remained at home—even after home became suddenly known as Austria or Hungary—and it did the monarchy no harm. Europe’s peoples, with or without wars, had always crisscrossed the continent, intermixing and seeking out new homes whenever their one bit of land produced too little or life became unbearable for some reason. But perhaps a coastline like this was a more naturally defined border. Here you could send the people you didn’t want back out on the water, even if it meant they would perish back home or simply drown at sea like surplus kittens. (pg. 50)

Meanwhile, the bereaved mother slips into a life of prostitution as a means of supporting herself after the desertion of her husband.

Each of the five variations of the central character’s life are separated by Intermezzos, short sequences of 4-9 pages in which Erpenbeck raises the question ‘but what if…’. For instance, what if the baby girl didn’t die in her cradle that night? What if she survived the crisis and her life continued? In effect, these intermezzos serve as a means of moving us from one version of the woman’s life to the next.

But if, for example, the child’s mother or father had thrust open the window in the middle of the night, had scooped a handful of snow from the sill, and put it under the baby’s shirt, perhaps the child would suddenly have started breathing again, possibly cried again as well, in any case its heart might have gone back to beating, its skin would have grown warm and the snow melted on its chest. (pg. 57)

As book II begins, we fast forward to 1919, and the seventeen-year-old protagonist and her family have moved to Vienna in the hope of finding a better life. Despite the end of the First World War, food is in desperately short supply, and the girl’s younger sister queues all day for meagre rations until her mother takes her place for the night shift. In this scene, the central character’s father reflects on the family’s situation.

For a brief time he had nurtured the hope that by moving to Vienna they would all be moving to an easier life, but then there’d been four years of war, a capitulation, and four months of hunger, and now all their provisions—their supplies of wood, groceries, hope—were running out, the emptiness in the pantry and storeroom equally great, the dirt floor showing through. Here in Vienna, his wife was reproaching him for one last thing: having married her, a Jewish vixen from the provinces, and not even a rich one at that. Something he had always refused to believe was apparently proving true after all: she was trapped in her Mosaic origins as if in a cage, knocking herself black and blue against bars. (pg. 79)

As for our central character, the weight of trying to find her way in an uncertain world proves too much to bear, and she enters into a suicide pact with a young medical student. Things don’t quite go to plan, but nevertheless the girl dies in hospital a few days later. And so we move to the next Intermezzo and another ‘what if?’ and her life continues once more.

In the third variation of her life, our protagonist is in Moscow. As book III opens, the year is 1938, and she is writing an account of her life in the hope of gaining Soviet citizenship. As the woman writes her story, we learn that she joined the Communist Party of Austria in 1920 where she met her husband, Comrade H. Both she and her husband were writers, keen to use language and words as a means of forging progress in the years following the War. Now, as she sits at her desk in Moscow, she knows that this written account might put an end to her life; alternatively, it might be kept in reserve, forcing her to live by it, ‘to prove herself worthy of it’. With her husband already under arrest, she must try to survive. Her aim is to save herself by writing her way back into life.

Now that her husband has been taken away, she knows that when she sits here putting her life to paper, she is playing not just with her own life, but with his as well, not just with her own death, but also with his; or she is playing against death—or does all this pro and contra make no difference at all? She knows that with every word she writes or leaves unwritten she is playing with the lives of her friends, just as her friends in turn, when they are asked about her, are forced to play with hers. (pg. 152)

I’ll refrain from covering the fourth and fifth lives in detail—I’m sure you’ve got the idea by now—but final instalment finds our protagonist living in a care home and suffering from dementia as her life draws to a close.

This impressive novel touches on various different ideas, and several of these are revisited throughout the narrative. Alongside the recognisable themes of personal sacrifice, loss, and the fragile nature of our existence, other themes emerge, too. Erpenbeck’s story highlights our desire to keep secrets from those who are closest to us as a means of protecting them from the heartache of knowing the truth. The daughter who doesn’t know her father was beaten to death by the Poles; the son who is told his father fell in the battle of Kharkov – these motifs echo and reverberate through the text.

Did keeping her misguided love a secret from her friend make her just as halfhearted and deceitful as her parents? It had done no good to keep the truth to herself either, for a truth remained even if it was never spoken aloud, day after day it went on doing what it had to. (pg. 89)

As I mentioned earlier, the intermezzos highlight the role chance plays in our existence – how our lives can turn on the tiniest of moments and the smallest of decisions, many of which are subjective. A handful of snow; a chance encounter in a café; a decision to cross a street at a certain point – all these things and more play a significant role in the lives of the central character.

Ultimately though, the novel’s overarching theme is, perhaps, the continuation of humankind – even when an individual dies, life goes on.

A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days. (pg. 15)

Before I finish, a few thoughts on Erpenbeck’s prose. While the style is spare and haunting throughout, it does vary somewhat from one section to another. Personally, I found Books I, II and V more engaging than the middle sections despite the highly compelling subject matter at the heart of the novel. Book III alternates between a first-person narrative (the documented account of the central character’s life) and passages written in the third person. While different fonts are used to differentiate between each section, the frequent switches between these two forms (together with the inclusion of snatches of conversation from a possible interrogation session) didn’t quite work for me. That’s just my personal opinion, though, and others may well disagree. Nevertheless The End of Days is a very powerful work, one I’m glad to have read.

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This novel won the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and as such, it has been widely reviewed. Posts that have caught my eye include those by Grant (of 1streading), Joe (of Rough Ghosts), TJ (of My Book Strings) and Gert Loveday. I read this book for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month, which is running throughout November.

The End of Days is published by Portobello Books. Source: personal copy. Book 14/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Vienna Tales – Arthur Schnitzler, Adalbert Stifter, and more (tr. Deborah Holmes)

I’ve long wanted to visit Vienna – a European city break is just my type of holiday. I’m sure I’ll get there one day, but in meantime, what better way to experience the city than through its literature.

Vienna Tales is a collection of stories featuring Vienna. This diverse anthology includes pieces by older, established writers such as Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), Joseph Roth (1894-1939) and Adalbert Stifter (1805-68), along with works by more contemporary authors, many of whom were new to me. As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to try to cover each story in turn. My aim instead is to give a flavour of the themes and a little of what I thought of the anthology as a whole.

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The stories in Vienna Tales are arranged geographically rather than chronologically, so we roam around the capital from west to east and back again. Several of the pieces are set in the margins of Vienna, reflecting the centre from a distance, but each one seems to capture a different facet of the city.

The collection opens with The Four-poster Bed, a poignant story about the demise of a love affair. In this early work by Arthur Schnitzler, a melancholy summer evening reflects the dying embers of one man’s love for a ‘sweet, darling girl’:

The last embers of sunset died down. Cool shadows crept up the houses, slowly, until they disappeared on the roofs. All that remained, way out on the last buildings, was a reddish, aching glow. (pg 24)

Many of the stories are packed with imagery, pictures of life in Vienna in the 19th and 20th centuries. In one of my favourite pieces from the collection, The Prater by Adalbert Stifter, we follow the narrator on an afternoon walk through this extensive park, an area that combines parkland, meadows, a fairground, beer stalls, coffee houses and more remote woodlands. It’s a feast day in May, and the Prater is bustling with activity:

Carriages drive through the midst of this crowd like ships in pack-ice, mostly slowly, often held up and forced to stand still for many minutes at a time, but then, when gaps present themselves, flying past each other like gleaming phantoms through the stolid, meandering mass. Figures on horseback can be seen rearing up out of the sea of pedestrians here and there, hopping over and through the line of carriages; (pgs. 164-165)

Joseph Roth’s short sketches, Day Out and Merry-go-round, also fall into this category.

Another of my favourites is The Feuilletonists by Ferdinand Kürnberger (1821-79), a delightfully amusing piece in which the narrator describes the characteristics of each type of feuilletonist (writers of feuilletons) to be found in the city. (Originating in France and Germany, popular in the mid-19th century, a feuilleton was the part of a newspaper or journal devoted to fiction, cultural criticism, light literature and gossip.) In Kürnberger’s sketch, we are introduced to the house feuilletonist, a writer who draws on his domestic surroundings for inspiration. Then we have the street feuilletonist, aka ‘the flaneur’ in high German, or ‘loafer’ in low German:

Exemplars of this species can often be found in front of the window displays of the larger fancy goods and fashion emporia. They also loiter in doorways to let the architecture of the magnificent new buildings opposite “work” on them; unfortunately, prestigious edifices freshly built in Vienna cannot be enjoyed from any other point of view. (pg 108)

By contrast, the tavern feuilletonist is to be found in the coffee houses of Vienna. ‘You will never find it there with a newspaper, but always with cards or a billiards cue in its hand. Loathing for periodical publications of all kinds is a distinguishing characteristic of this kind of journalist.’  There are one or two others as well, but I’ll let you discover them for yourselves should you decide to read this book. (Incidentally, a Viennese coffeehouse, Konditorei Demel, also features in Anton Kuh’s Lenin and Demel, a short piece on deposed aristocrats trying to getting to grips with the new culture following WW1.)

Several of the pieces in this anthology touch on the mood or atmosphere of the city. In Vienna by Heinrich Laube (1806-84), a man is entering the capital from the south by horse-drawn carriage. As he travels towards his inn in the dawn light, the visitor reflects on his impressions of Vienna.

Although I hadn’t even arrived at my inn, I could already tell how I would fare there. The city’s aspect is not one of overwhelming beauty, but picturesque, charming mellow. The warmer skies, the lilting speech, the plump, succulent bodies of the Viennese, their customs and habits, everything is locked in so blissful an embrace that the impulse is to open one’s own arms wide. And in Vienna, no one opens them in vain. It is a supremely humane and accommodating place. (pg. 97) 

By contrast, we see a different perspective on the city in Dimitré Dinev’s excellent story, Spas Sleeps. This contemporary piece features Spas, a Bulgarian refugee who fled to Vienna at the end of the 20th century in search of a new beginning. At the start of the story, Spas is sleeping on the street, but the vast majority of this tale focuses on the years leading up to this point. Reflecting on the time of his arrival in Vienna in the 1990s, Spas was full of hope and ambition, full of belief in the future. He longed to find work as it represented everything: a means of survival, peace of mind and the only way of staying in the city.

Work was a spectre. It hid itself from them and tormented everyone. Only those who found it found peace of mind. Six months should be long enough, the law decreed. After that it persecuted anyone who still haunted the place without work: an exorcist who thought six months was long enough to prove who is a person and who is a ghost. The ideal world wished to remain so. (pgs. 133-134)

We follow Spas and his friend, fellow Bulgarian student, Ilija, as they search for any kind of work, be it temporary manual jobs or something more stable. The two young men share everything, pooling their resources along with the opportunities to work and study. As the years pass, the laws get tighter and tighter making it increasingly hard for them to survive. There are many compromises and sacrifices along the way. This is a very poignant, thought-provoking story, one that remains all too relevant in Europe today. I think it will stay with me for a long time.

There are stories by other contemporary writers too. These include: Envy by Eva Menasse (b. 1970) – a subtle story that touches on love, loss and the tensions in a family; and Six-nine-six-six-nine-nine by Doron Rabinovici (b. 1961) – an eerie story of a composer who, when he rents a garret in the Viennese suburbs, hears a mysterious voice on the phone line.

Vienna Tales is a really interesting collection, all the more so for the sheer variety of pieces included. I would recommend it to any lover of literature with an interest in the city. The anthology also contains an excellent introduction by the curator, short biographies of each writer and a myriad of suggestions for further reading on Vienna (both fiction and non-fiction).

I’ll finish with a favourite quote from Out for a Walk by Schnitzler, in which four men debate their differing perspectives on the city. For one man Vienna is a melancholy place, for another it has a strong sense of nostalgia, for the third man it is merry and carefree while the fourth feels it has let him down. As the story opens, the sun is setting, and the men are walking to the periphery of the city:

Grimy children played noisily in the streets; and on the dull green meadows that began here and faded into gentle hill country further out, there were common folk who yearned for fresher air without knowing it: little boys and girls rolling on the ground or running to and fro, soldiers smoking cheap cigars with idiotically cheerful off-duty faces, streetwalkers in twos and threes laughing loudly as they strode over the fields, and the occasional solitary wanderer who had ventured out to savour the atmosphere of this peculiar no-man’s land where the city gradually comes to an end, its raw, drawn-out, fearful panting ceasing in a weary, thankful sigh. (pgs. 259-260)

Emma and Marina Sofia have also reviewed this collection, which I read for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month.

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Vienna Tales is published in the UK by Oxford University Press. Source:  review copy kindly provided by the publishers.