Tag Archives: Germany

Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart (tr. Michael Hofmann)

The German writer Irmgard Keun lived a fascinating life. Having enjoyed great success with her first two novels Gilgi, One of Us (1931) and The Artificial Silk Girl (both of which I adored), she found herself blacklisted when the Nazis swept to power in 1933. By 1936, Keun was travelling around Europe in the company of her lover, the Jewish writer Joseph Roth. After Midnight (1937) and Child of All Nations (1938) were written while Keun was in exile abroad, with the writer finally returning to Germany in 1940 under an assumed name – possibly helped by a false newspaper report of her suicide. A final novel, Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart, was published in Germany in 1950 but has only recently been translated into English by Michael Hofmann in 2021.

Ferdinand differs from Keun’s earlier novels by virtue of its focus on a male character. So while Gilgi, Silk Girl and Midnight, all feature strong women, full of determination and life, Ferdinand is narrated by a dandyish daydreamer with a tendency to drift. Consequently, Ferdinand seems to lack the narrative drive of Keun’s previous work, which makes for a somewhat frustrating read (for this reader at least). Nevertheless, there are still various elements to enjoy here, although it’s probably best suited to die-hard Keun fans rather than first-time readers of her work.

Set in post-war Cologne, where black-market trading and other dodgy activities are rife, the novel reads like a series of pen portraits and sketches as our eponymous hero, Ferdinand Timpe, tries to make his way in a rapidly changing world. Just like Ferdinand himself, the narrative meanders around, bumping into various acquaintances and members of the extended Timpe family, each one more eccentric and absurd than the last. Take Ferdinand’s brother Luitpold as an example, a furniture maker in southern Germany – a man who always manages to stay afloat, despite his dire money management.

Luitpold represents the type of good fellow who in nineteenth-century novels gets into trouble by issuing bonds for unreliable friends, allowing bills to fall due, paying allowances to children who were not his, and opening his heart and his wallet to impoverished widows. By the rules of our rough new world he is classified as a noble idiot. (p. 105)

Ferdinand’s future mother-in-law is another strange one, eagerly combing the bombed-out city for all manner of booty from typewriters to louche paintings.

The city seemed wiped out, destroyed. But some things weren’t. In the midst of the ruins there were a few intact, abandoned houses and flats in pallid, ghostly glory. Everything belonged to everyone. Insatiable and obsessed, my forget-me-not-blue mother-in-law went on the prowl, and snaffled among other things as sewing machine, various typewriters, four rugs, seventeen eggcups, a gilt frame, a bombproof door, a poultry cage, and a pompous drawing-room painting depicting a voluptuous woman lying prone in pink, puffy nudity, a blue moth teetering on the end of her pink index finger, and the whole thing somehow casual. (p. 60)

Funnily enough, the stolen painting gives rise to a particularly amusing anecdote when the former owners of the artwork appear on the scene. But despite this troublesome development, Ferdinand’s mother-in-law, Frau Klatte, insists that the painting is a treasured heirloom, passed down through her family from one generation to the next. As far as Frau Klatte sees it, the former owners are ‘awful people’ who are ‘not even properly married’, and a protracted tussle over the item subsequently ensues.

At heart, Ferdinand lacks ambition, which contributes to his rather aimless approach to life. As such, he recognises his lack of suitability for various professions, ranging from teaching and academia to administration and business. In a case of mistaken identity, Ferdinand lands a gig as a writer for Red Dawn, an emerging literary journal, but he struggles to settle on a subject for his story. Eventually though, another job turns up, with Ferdinand acting as a kind of agony aunt for unhappy wives looking to let off steam about their husbands’ shortcomings.

Most women would rather be married unhappily than not at all. Besides they are rarely as unhappy as they think they are. Some have an inborn martyr complex and take suffering for a sign of moral superiority. They like to be pitied. For these wives I have a pained frown in the corner of my mouth and a look of melancholy sympathy. That sees me through, and I don’t even need to speak. (p. 117)

As Ferdinand makes his way through the city, he is also on the lookout for a new suitor for his fiancée, Luise. Having allowed himself to become engaged to Luise before the war, Ferdinand now wishes to extricate himself from the arrangement. In truth, after a stint as a prisoner of war, he really wants to live alone for a while as he adjusts to a world of freedom. The trouble is, there are Luise’s feelings to be considered, hence our protagonist’s quandary on what to do for the best. As the novel draws to a close, an ironic development comes to Ferdinand’s rescue, but I’ll let you discover that for yourself should you decide to read the book.

The novel ends with a party at Cousin Johanna’s place, a reunion of sorts as various friends, relatives and strangers come together, fuelled by an assortment of music and drink. It’s a fitting end to a somewhat disjointed novel – but maybe that’s a perfectly accurate reflection of life in post-war Cologne, shortly after Germany’s currency reform in 1948.

So, in summary then, not an entirely satisfying experience for me, although Keun’s pithy observations on human nature and various aspects of 20th century life are always interesting to read. For other (more positive) views on this book, Grant’s review and Max’s summary are worth reading, accessible via the links.    

Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart is published by Penguin Books; personal copy. (Read for Lizzy’s German Lit Month and Novellas in November.)

Women in Translation – some book-and-wine matches, just for fun!

Something a little different from me today. Some book and wine matches to tie in with #WITMonth (Women in Translation), a month-long celebration of translated literature by women writers, which runs every August. This year’s event has just finished – possibly the most successful yet, with hundreds of recommendations and reviews flying around the web over the past few weeks.

This year, I’m trying to make ‘WIT’ a regular thing by reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman writer in translation each month rather than just thinking about them for August. Plus, there are lots of WIT reviews from my eight years of blogging gathered together in this area here.

So, here are a few of my favourite WIT reads, complete with suitable wine matches. For each book, I’ve tried to select wines made from grape varieties grown in the same region as the setting, just to keep the pairing as local as possible. Naturally, my fondness for European whites and rosés comes through quite strongly here, but please feel free to suggest some book-and-wine matches from further afield. South America in particular is a bit of a gap for me!

All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Angus Davidson)

While I’ve enjoyed several reissues of Natalia Ginzburg’s work in recent years, All Our Yesterdays feels like the one I’ve been waiting to read – a rich, multilayered evocation of Italian family life spanning the duration of the Second World War. The novel focuses on two Italian families living opposite one another in a small Northern Italian town. While one family derives its wealth from the town’s soap factory, the other is middle-class and relatively short of money, contrasting the fortunes of these neighbouring households.

Ginzburg has written a truly remarkable novel here, a story of ordinary people living through extraordinary times, beautifully told with a warmth and generosity of spirit that reflects the Italian character. There are some lovely touches of dry humour throughout, as the author maintains a wry sense of detachment from life’s absurdities, despite the gravity of events. One of my favourite books this year.

Wine Match: Given that Ginzburg grew up in Turin, I’m looking at wines from the Piedmont region as suitable matches for this one. The area is famed for its Barolo and Barbaresco wines made from the Nebbiolo grape variety. However, these fine wines tend to be quite pricey. A Langhe Nebbiolo is a more approachable, cost-effective option. The Wine Society’s Exhibition Langhe Nebbiolo is a great example – made by the Rizzi estate, this wine has a lovely cherry, raspberry and rose-petal aroma with plenty of juicy red fruit on the palate. G. D Vajra is another excellent producer worth seeking out.

The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán (tr. Paul O’Prey and Lucia Graves)

This is a marvellous novel, a great discovery for me, courtesy of fellow blogger, Grant from 1streading. The House of Ulloa tells a feisty tale of contrasting values as a virtuous Christian chaplain finds himself embroiled in the exploits of a rough and ready marquis and those of his equally lively companions. Several scenes are rich in humour, but the novel’s darker undercurrent is never too far away – the gothic atmosphere of the Ulloa mansion is beautifully evoked. There are hunting expeditions, some rather boisterous banquets and plenty of quieter moments, too. This classic of 19th-century Spanish literature is a joy from start to finish, packed full of incident to keep the reader entertained.

Wine Match: Bazán’s novel is set in Galicia in northwest Spain, home to the Godello grape variety, one of my favourite Spanish whites. The Maruxa Godello, from the Valdeorras Denominación de Origen (DO), is a great example. There’s plenty of lemony and peachy fruit here, with enough body to stand up to chicken or fish. The Valdesil Montenovo Godello (from the same DO) is another winner, too.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Irene Ash vs Heather Lloyd)

A quintessential summer read, Bonjour Tristesse is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with other people’s emotions, all set against the background of the glamorous French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Côte d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another person arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father.  Sagan’s novella is an utterly compelling read with a dramatic denouement. My review is based on Heather Lloyd’s 2013 translation, but if you’re thinking of reading this one. I would strongly recommend Irene Ash’s 1955 version – it’s more vivacious than the Lloyd, with a style that perfectly complements the story’s palpable atmosphere and mood.

Wine Match: As we’re in the South of France for this one, it’s got to be a rosé from Provence! There are several good producers here, and it’s pretty hard to go wrong. The Wine Society’s Exhibition Côtes de Provence Rosé (from Château des Mesclances) is a good bet when available. Dangerously drinkable with lovely redcurrant and strawberry fruit, this round, fresh-tasting rosé is made from Cinsault – maybe with a touch of Grenache in the blend. The Mirabeau en Provence Classic Rosé (readily available from Waitrose) is another excellent choice.

Gilgi, One of Us by Irmgard Keun (tr. Geoff Wilkes)

This striking portrayal of a determined young woman in Weimar-era Cologne is an underrated gem. Right from the start, I found Gilgi an utterly captivating protagonist, a strong feminist presence with a thoroughly engaging voice. In essence, the novella explores Gilgi as an individual and the competing demands on her future direction as she finds herself torn between two seemingly irreconcilable passions: her desire for independence and a successful career vs her love for Martin (a free spirit) and the emotional fulfilment this delivers. Keun does a terrific job in capturing her protagonist’s conflicted emotions, frequently in a state of flux. In many respects, this is a very progressive book. Not only is it written in a modernist style, but it also touches on several forward-thinking themes, including adoption, opportunities for women in the workplace, financial independence from men, sex outside of marriage, unwanted pregnancy, and the impact of debt on a person’s mental health. A thoroughly impressive book in more ways than one.

Wine Match: Cologne is not too far from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer wine region, making Riesling a great match for Gilgi. The von Kesselstatt Rieslings tend to be excellent. Their Niedermenniger Riesling Kabinett is round and racy with plenty of citrus fruit. Off-dry in style with a nice balance between acidity and sweetness, this wine would pair brilliantly with Chinese or Thai food. The Rieslings from Dr Loosen and J.J. Prūm are worth checking out, too.

Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

First published in Portugal in 1966 and recently translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa, this brilliant novella is something of a minor masterpiece of 20th-century literature. It’s a work of great precision and compression – a quietly devastating story of three generations of women, confined and subsumed by the men who surround them. There are similarities with Anita Brookner’s novels here – both thematically and stylistically – as Carvalho goes deep into the inner lives of her female protagonists, conveying them unflinchingly for the reader to see. Fans of Natalia Ginzburg and Penelope Mortimer will also find much to admire in this novella – a timeless reminder of how destructive the actions of unthinking men can be, defining and destroying the women who serve them.

Wine Match: Empty Wardrobes is set in Lisbon, making a white wine from the Lisboa Valley a potential choice. Alvarinho is grown here – the same grape variety as Albariño, found in the Galicia region of Spain. The AdegaMãe Lisboa Valley Selection looks like a fun one to try. A blend of Arinto, Viosinho, Alvarinho and Viognier, the wine notes promise stone and citrus fruits with a touch of Atlantic freshness and zest. Alternatively, if you’d prefer a red, a wine made from Touriga Nacional or Tinto Roriz (known as Tempranillo in Spain) would be an excellent bet.

Meeting in Positano by Goliarda Sapienza (tr. Brian Robert Moore)

This is such a gorgeous novel, as luminous as a hazy summer’s day, shimmering with beauty and sensuality. Its author, the Italian actress and writer Goliarda Sapienza, started her career in theatre and film, working with Luchino Visconti in the 1940s and 50s; and it was a film that first brought Sapienza to Positano, the magical Italian village on the Amalfi Coast she viewed as her spiritual home. The novel – a sensual story of female friendship – has a semi-autobiographical feel, set in the glamour of 1950s Italy. The intensity of the bond between the two women is beautifully conveyed, encompassing joy, desire, regret, longing and tragedy, making this a wonderful rediscovered gem.

Wine Match: Italian white wines from the Campania region would be ideal here. Luckily, they’re also some of my favourites, making this novel a pleasure to match. A wine made from either Fiano, Falanghina or Greco would be perfect for this one. The Falanghina from the Feudi San Gregorio estate is delicious – fresh and vibrant with some lovely citrus and stone fruit notes, this is summer in a glass. Alternatively, some of the major supermarkets have partnered with reputable producers to offer own-label wines, including those made from Fiano or Falanghina – and these are always worth a try.  

So, I hope you enjoyed that little tour around some of my favourite WIT reads and wines of Europe. Feel free to let me know your thoughts on these books, together with any wine matches or recommendations of your own in the comments below!

Women Writers in Translation – some of my recent favourites from the shelves

As many of you will know, August sees the return of WIT Month, a month-long celebration of books by Women in Translation. It’s an annual event hosted by Meytal at Biblibio, aiming to raise the profile of translated literature by women writers worldwide.

This year, I’ve been trying to put a little more focus on this area by reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman in translation each month, rather than just thinking about them for August. So, if you’re looking for some ideas on what to read for WIT Month, here’s a round-up of my recent faves.

Meeting in Positano by Goliarda Sapienza (tr. Brian Robert Moore)

This is such a gorgeous novel, as luminous as a hazy summer’s day, shimmering with beauty and sensuality. Its author, the Italian actress and writer Goliarda Sapienza, started her career in theatre and film, working with Luchino Visconti in the 1940s and 50s; and it was a film that first brought Sapienza to Positano, the magical Italian village on the Amalfi Coast she viewed as her spiritual home. The novel – a sensual story of female friendship – has a semi-autobiographical feel, set in the glamour of 1950s Italy. The intensity of the bond between the two women is beautifully conveyed, encompassing joy, desire, regret, longing and tragedy, making this a wonderful rediscovered gem.

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray by Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

This beautiful, evocative novella is set in Paris on a Sunday afternoon in September, just at the crossover point between summer and autumn. The narrator – an unnamed woman – drives from the city centre to the Parisian suburb of Ville-d’Avray to visit her married sister, Claire Marie. As the two sisters sit and chat in the garden, an intimate story unfolds, something the two women have never spoken about before. Claire Marie reveals a secret relationship from her past, a sort of dalliance with a mysterious man she met at her husband’s office. What emerges is a story of unspoken desire, missed opportunities and avenues left unexplored. This haunting, dreamlike novella is intimate and hypnotic in style, as melancholy and atmospheric as a dusky autumn afternoon.

Gigli, One of Us by Irmgard Keun (tr. Geoff Wilkes)

I loved this novella, a striking portrayal of a determined young woman in Weimar-era Cologne. Right from the start, I found Gilgi an utterly captivating protagonist, a strong feminist presence with a thoroughly engaging voice. In essence, the novella explores Gilgi as an individual and the competing demands on her future direction as she finds herself torn between two seemingly irreconcilable passions: her desire for independence and a successful career vs her love for Martin (a free spirit) and the emotional fulfilment this delivers. Keun does a terrific job in capturing her protagonist’s conflicted emotions, frequently in a state of flux. In many respects, this is a very progressive book. Not only is it written in a modernist style, but it also touches on several forward-thinking themes, including adoption, opportunities for women in the workplace, financial independence from men, sex outside of marriage, unwanted pregnancy, and the impact of debt on a person’s mental health. A thoroughly engaging book.

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. by the author)

This slim, beautifully-constructed novella is an exploration of solitude, a meditation on aloneness and the sense of isolation that sometimes accompanies it. The book – which Lahiri originally wrote in Italian and then translated into English – is narrated by an unnamed woman in her mid-forties who lives in a European city, also nameless but almost certainly somewhere in Italy. There’s a vulnerability to this single woman, a fragility that gradually emerges as she goes about her days, moving from place to place through a sequence of brief vignettes. As we follow this woman around the city, we learn more about her life – things are gradually revealed as she reflects on her solitary existence, sometimes considering what might have been, the paths left unexplored or chances never taken. This is an elegant, quietly reflective novella – Lahiri’s prose is precise, poetic and pared-back, a style that feels perfectly in tune with the narrator’s world.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori)

First published in Japanese in 2016 and translated into English in 2018, Convenience Store Woman is something of a literary sensation, having sold more than a million copies in Japan alone. This quirky, sharply-observed novella is both darkly humorous and strangely poignant, which might sound like a slightly uncomfortable combination, but somehow Murata makes it work. It’s also a book that will resonate with anyone who has ever struggled to fit in or found themselves out of step with society’s expectations. Alongside its central theme of the rigidity (and absurdity) of society’s expectations, the novella also touches on various related points, including misogyny, coercion and our perceptions of retail workers. In summary, this is a surprisingly clever novella that poses some fascinating questions about society and the relative value we place on different life choices. A very thought-provoking read.

Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

First published in Portugal in 1966 and recently translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa, this brilliant novella is something of a minor masterpiece of 20th-century literature. Here we have a work of great precision and compression – a quietly devastating story of three generations of women, confined and subsumed by the men who surround them. There are similarities with Anita Brookner’s novels here – both thematically and stylistically – as Carvalho goes deep into the inner lives of her female protagonists, conveying them unflinchingly for the reader to see. Fans of Natalia Ginzburg and Penelope Mortimer will also find much to admire in this novella – a timeless reminder of how destructive the actions of unthinking men can be, defining and destroying the women who serve them.

Family and Borghesia by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Beryl Stockman)

Two separate but related late ‘70s novellas by the Italian neorealist writer Natalia Ginzburg, reissued together in a lovely edition from NYRB Classics. Both stories deal with the messy business of family relationships – how couples come together and subsequently break apart, often creating shock waves across their wider family networks. Viewed together, they illustrate how painful day-to-day life can be and how difficult it is to defend ourselves against unhappiness and detachment. Several characters seem lost or purposeless, drifting through life, trying to navigate the things that cause pain – infidelity, abandonment, illness, suicide, premature death, loneliness and depression. And yet, Ginzburg maintains a lightness of touch in these books, highlighting the inherent emotions without a hint of sentimentality, exploring the various relationships with insight and depth.

Happening by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

First published in French in 2000 and translated into English in 2001, Happening takes us back to October 1963 when Ernaux was studying literature at Rouen University while also dealing with an unwanted pregnancy at the age of twenty-three. In essence, the book is an account of Ernaux’s experiences of a backstreet abortion – her quest to secure it, what takes place during the procedure and the days that follow, all expressed in the author’s trademark candid style. What makes this account so powerful is the rigorous nature of Ernaux’s approach. There are no moral judgements or pontifications here, just the unflinchingly honest details of a topic that remains controversial even in today’s relatively liberated society. By recounting this traumatic experience, one deeply connected to life and death, perhaps Ernaux is looking to translate the personal into something of broader social relevance. A powerful, vital, uncompromising book that deserves to be widely read.

The Umbrella by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

Originally published in Danish as Paraplyen (‘The Umbrella’) in 1952, this is the first of two collections of short stories brought together in this beautiful Penguin edition, The Trouble with Happiness and Other Stories. (I’m planning to post my review of the second collection during WIT Month itself.) These ten stories – many of which are superb – explore the suffocating nature of family life predominantly from the female perspective, the overwhelming sense of loneliness and anxiety that many women (and children) feel due to various constraints. Here we have stories of petty jealousies, unfulfilled desires, deliberate cruelty and the sudden realisation of deceit, brilliantly conveyed by the author with insight and sensitivity. In short, it’s one of the very best collections I’ve read in recent years. Very highly recommended indeed.

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami (tr. Sam Bett and Davis Boyd)

This excellent novel tackles a very difficult subject – that of adolescent bullying – but does so in such a thoughtful and thought-provoking way that the reader cannot help but be drawn in. Set in Japan in 1991, Heaven is narrated by a fourteen-year-old boy who is known to us only by his nickname ‘Eyes’. The boy is systematically bullied – both mentally and physically – by a group of boys in his class, an action he puts down to his lazy eye. On one level, Heaven offers an acute insight into the narrator’s emotions as he tries to process his responses to the bullying. But on another, the book can also be viewed as an exploration of some of the broader philosophical issues at play. The psychology of bullying, for instance – what prompts people to act the way they do, how important (or not) are moral codes and social norms in shaping their actions, and what (if anything) do victims gain from enduring it? A beautifully-written novel about a tough, uncompromising subject – shortlisted for the International Booker earlier this year.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading any next month. Perhaps you have a favourite book by a woman in translation? If so, please feel free to mention it below.

You can also find some of my other favourites in my WIT Month recommendations posts from July 2020 and 2021, including books by Olga Tokarczuk, Françoise Sagan, Yūko Tsushima, Ana Maria Matute and many more. Hopefully, there’s something for everyone here!

Gilgi, One of Us by Irmgard Keun (tr. Geoff Wilkes)

I loved this novella, a striking portrayal of a determined young woman set in Weimar-era Cologne. First published in 1931, and subsequently banned by the Nazi authorities, Gilgi (One of Us), was Irmgard Keun’s debut novel, announcing its author as a powerful new voice in German literature.

The novella revolves around Gisela Kron, affectionally known as ‘Gilgi’, a twenty-one-year-old secretary living and working in Cologne. Gilgi is smart, resourceful and efficient. She works hard during the day, barely stopping to catch her breath; then at night she studies languages to improve her prospects, diligently applying herself to each task at hand. Despite living at home with her rather conservative adoptive parents, Gilgi rents a place elsewhere, a room of her own where she can study, be herself and work on her translations.

Idleness is anathema to Gilgi. She has little time for those who appear bored or lifeless. For Gilgi, progression is everything – she wants to work, to get on, to be ‘self-supporting and independent’. Hopefully she’ll save enough money to have her own apartment in a few years’ time, maybe even start her own business if everything goes well. Whatever it takes, Gilgi has the tenacity to succeed – even where men are concerned, or so she thinks…

Gilgi is an experienced girl. She knows men, and what they variously want and don’t want, and how this is betrayed by the tone of their voices, their expressions, and their movements. If a man and a boss like Herr Reuter speaks in an uncertain voice, he’s in love, and if he’s in love, he wants something. Sooner or later. If he doesn’t get what he wants, he’s surprised, offended, and angry. (p. 10)

One day, just when she’s least expecting it, into her life comes Martin, a charismatic free spirit in his early forties. In many ways, Martin seems the complete opposite to Gilgi; he is something of a vagabond, an idler who lacks ambition, viewing work as a means to an end, a way of funding his travels in a rather haphazard way. And yet, despite her fierce sense of independence, Gilgi is attracted to him, hoping that he might stay, preferably for a while.

…she’s not some sentimental goose, she doesn’t need anyone, she gets by on her own. She knows what she wants to do, and knows that she can do what she wants to do. And the whole time she’s telling Martin this, she grips his hand as though she was afraid that he could suddenly stand up and disappear, never to be seen again. He mustn’t do that, he must stay with her, for a long time yet… (p. 65)

Before long, Gilgi moves in with Martin, joining him in the beautiful flat he is looking after for an absent friend. Nevertheless, the pair have little time to spend with one another, especially with Gilgi’s translation work in the evenings. Money is a complication for the couple, too. While Gilgi can afford to pay her way, Martin’s sources of income are more meagre. He has a modest allowance from some capital invested in his brother’s business – just about enough to get by on his own, but nothing more.

In essence, the novella explores Gilgi as an individual and the competing demands on her future direction. Before Martin appeared, Gilgi always knew what she wanted from life with 100% certainty. Now, however, these beliefs are being tested, to the point where Gilgi begins to question her aims, actions and ultimate limits.

Gilgi loves Martin with a depth and intensity she has never experienced before; and as the narrative progresses, she finds herself torn between two seemingly irreconcilable passions: her desire for independence and a successful career vs her love for Martin and the emotional fulfilment this delivers. Ultimately, it is the attempted reconciliation of these opposing forces that drives Keun’s novella forward.

Everything’s fine, you thought, when you moved in with Martin. Nothing’s fine. Maybe you want too much. You want to keep your whole life from before, with its joy in getting ahead, its well-oiled approach to work, with its strict allocation of time, its brilliantly functioning system. And you want another life on top of that, a life with Martin, a soft contourless, heedless life. You don’t want to give up the first life, and you can’t give up the second one. (p. 85)

Right from the start, I found Gilgi an utterly captivating protagonist, a strong feminist presence with a thoroughly engaging ‘voice’. Keun does a terrific job in capturing her protagonist’s conflicted emotions, which are often in a state of flux. Like any young woman in the early stages of adulthood, Gilgi discovers how complex love can be – a state that makes one feel very protected one day and completely exposed the next. 

Interestingly, Keun seems to move seamlessly between first-, second-, and third-person narration throughout the book – a technique that sounds as if it might be quite confusing, but in reality feels anything but. It works beautifully on the page, giving the story a sense of vibrancy and fluidity to match Gilgi’s personality. The writing is wonderful – full of sharp observations about characters and life. I especially loved this description of Gilgi’s birth mother, whom Gilgi meets for the first time towards the end of the tale.

As coolly and uninhibitedly as the casting director of a revue, Gilgi examines the petite, elegant lady who is standing before her. Doesn’t impress me. How to classify her type? Title character in a mediocre magazine serial. Quite good figure – style a little undecided – half coolly fashionable American girl, half older lady who’s kept slim by dancing with gigolos. A touch too expensively dressed – the usual tasteful but slightly impersonal uniform of the traveler in first class. (p. 162)

In many respects, Gilgi (One of Us) is a very progressive book. Not only is it written in a modernist style, but it also touches on several forward-thinking themes, including adoption, opportunities for women in the workplace, financial independence from men, sex outside of marriage, unwanted pregnancy, and the impact of debt on a person’s mental health. In summary then, Keun has created an evocative, thought-provoking narrative featuring a strong female character, very much a precursor to some of her later work.

Coincidentally, Max has just listed Keun’s 1937 novella, After Midnight in his 2021 reading highlights, so it’s great to see this writer getting some much-deserved attention!

Gilgi, One of Us is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

After Midnight by Irmgard Keun (tr. Anthea Bell)

Last year I read and loved Irmgard Keun’s novel The Artificial Silk Girl, written in the early 1930s as a sort of German response to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos. (I liked it so much that it made my 2017 list of favourites, a belated write-up from April this year.) So, when the time came to look for something suitable to read for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month, another Keun felt like a natural choice for me.

After Midnight was written and published in 1937 while Keun was living in exile in Europe having left Germany the previous year. Deceptively straightforward and engaging on the surface, the novel is actually a very subtle and insightful critique of the Nazi regime, written by an author who had experienced the challenges of navigating the system first-hand. It’s an excellent book, one that draws the reader in from its striking opening line.

You can open an envelope and take out something which bites or stings, though it isn’t a living creature. (p. 3)

The novel is narrated by Sanna, a relatively ordinary nineteen-year-old girl who has fled from Cologne to Frankfurt after being questioned by the Gestapo – a move prompted by the malicious actions of her aunt as a way of currying favour with the authorities. Regrettably, Sanna has had to leave behind her cousin and fiancé, the rather unassuming Franz; but as the book opens, Sanna receives a letter which suggests that Franz may be coming to Frankfurt in the hope of seeing her again, hence the mention of an envelope in that very first line.

As the story progresses, we learn more about Sanna’s life in Frankfurt – and through this, more about the perils of living in Nazi Germany, a society where almost every view expressed or every action taken can be used against someone, depending on how they are interpreted by others.

Much of the novel’s subtlety stems from Sanna’s seemingly simple observations on the nature of life in Germany. Her style is uncomplicated and conversational with a natural flow to it; and while some readers may feel these remarks are somewhat too breezy given the seriousness of the situation, her lightweight tone belies the strength and perceptiveness of the message underneath. Sanna’s comments are frequently as astute as they are ironic when she repeatedly points out the hypocrisies of the prevailing regime. In the following passage, Sanna is reflecting on her friend Gerti, whose lover is considered to be of ‘mixed race’, his father being Jewish and his mother non-Jewish – a dangerous position given the political environment at the time.

Why does a girl like Gerti have to go falling in love with a banned person of mixed race, for goodness’ sake, when there are plenty of men around the authorities would let her love? It’s hard enough to know your way around all the rules the authorities lay down for business—business, as we all know, can be very trickily organized—and now we have to know the rules for love too. It isn’t easy, it really isn’t. Before you know it, you may find yourself castrated or in prison, which is not pleasant. Love is supposed to be all right, and German women are supposed to have children, but before you can do that some kind of process involving feelings is called for. And the law says no mistakes must be made in this process. I suppose the safest thing is not to love anyone at all. For as long as that’s allowed. (p. 34)

Sanna and her friend Gerti have much the same preoccupations as any other young women of their age. They are not particularly interested in politics; instead, they just want to go out and have fun without worrying too much about the future. But the nation’s politics seep into every corner of life, to the extent that they cannot be ignored, even when it comes to love and family relationships.

While at first Sanna may seem somewhat unsophisticated and naïve, she is in fact sharp enough to see many of the dangers of living in an environment where suspicion and mistrust are rampant, where people will stop at nothing, even going as far as informing on friends and family to protect their own positions.

We are living in the time of the greatest German denunciation movement ever, you see. Everyone has to keep an eye on everyone else. Everyone’s got power over everyone else. Everyone can get everyone else locked up. There aren’t many can withstand the temptation to make use of the kind of power. The noblest instincts of the German nation have been aroused, and they’re being tenderly cultivated. (p. 100)

The novel is peppered with Sanna’s casually satirical observations, many of which are eminently quotable and on point.

Herr Kulmbach had been saying the Führer had united the whole German nation. Which is true enough, it’s just that the people making up the whole German nation don’t get on with each other. But that doesn’t make any difference to political unity, I suppose. (p. 33)

Keun is also particularly insightful on the dilemmas faced by writers under the Nazi regime. After travelling to Frankfurt, Sanna goes to stay with her older stepbrother, Algin, a once successful novelist whose books are now banned by the authorities. With the prospect of another purge of literary figures looming on the horizon, Algin is effectively caught in a Catch-22 situation – damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t when it comes to using his art to express a view.

He might yet save himself by writing a long poem about the Führer, something he has been most reluctant to do so far. But even that might be dangerous. Because National Socialist writers might take exception to his daring to write about the Führer without being an old campaigner for the cause. Similarly, he daren’t write a Nazi novel, because it wouldn’t be fitting. However, if he doesn’t write a Nazi novel that makes him undesirable. People still like reading his books, people still want to print them, and that’s not right either. (p. 97)

As another character, Heine, observes, the Nazi regime has effectively neutered Algin’s true voice and political conscience. For the love of his wife and their lifestyle in the city, Algin has compromised his own values, putting his name to pieces that go against his personal views to evade the threat of punishment.

A writer in the act of writing must fear neither his own words nor anything else in the world. A writer who is afraid is no true writer. (p. 98)

Heine, we discover, is a former journalist who now writes very little as a consequence of the poisonous climate. Heine is older and more forthright than Algin, such that his criticisms of the authorities are quite explicit and direct, contrasting starkly with Algin’s effective impotence and the veiled nature of Sanna’s critique of the powers that be.

While the novel is primarily concerned with highlighting the inhumanities and idiocies of Nazism as a doctrine, it does contain elements of plot, all of which culminate in a dramatic climax towards the end of the book. The scene in question takes place during a lavish all-night party hosted by Liska, Algin’s sophisticated and glamorous wife, who loves Heine with a fierce passion. As the story moves towards its shocking denouement, the mood darkens considerably and the tension rises. There is a sense of desperation and peril in the air as several of the characters seem poised on the edge of a precipice where the chances of securing a safe outcome seem terribly uncertain.

After Midnight is a fascinating book, one that provides a real insight into a country on the brink of self-destruction. Keun is particularly illuminating on how easily a society can shift such that the unimaginable becomes a reality as a new world order is established. The Melville House edition comes with an excellent afterword by German Studies expert, Geoff Wilkes, who goes into considerable detail on Keun’s life and literary career.

In Sanna, Keun has created a very engaging, relatable narrator, drawing on her own experiences in Germany and possibly the time she spent as an émigré in Europe. I’ll finish with a final passage in which Heine reflects on the concept of a life in exile, a proposition that holds precious little appeal for him, primarily due to the sense that one will always remain an outsider at heart irrespective of the country’s welcome.

You’ll find any other country is smooth and hard as a chestnut shell. You become a trial to yourself and a burden on others. For the roofs that you see are not built for you. The bread that you smell is not baked for you. And the language that you hear is not spoken for you. (p. 143)

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 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.