Tag Archives: German Literature Month

Neues Wilhelm Busch Album – Wilhelm Busch

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Wilhelm Busch (1832 – 1908) was a German humorist, poet and illustrator.  His wood engraving illustrations satirised almost all parts of society but particularly Catholicism, religion in general, morality and everyday life in towns and villages across Germany.  This beautiful anthology belonging to my mother, was given to her by a neighbour when she was 12.  It was a firm feature of my own childhood.  I vividly remember my sister and I leafing through the fine pages fascinated and vaguely disturbed in equal measure, because like Grimm’s fairy stories, some of Busch’s cautionary tales end badly for his characters.

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Busch is best remembered for Max and Moritz the cheeky twosome who terrorise hardworking folk in their local community.  This collection opens with the Max and Moritz series “Eine Bubengescichte in sieben Streichen”  my translation “A rogue’s story in seven pranks” This is Dennis the Menace in double.  Each “Streich” shows the boys carrying out pranks ranging from stealing cooked chickens, loading their teacher’s pipe with gunpowder or stuffing beetles under an elderly gent’s bedclothes.

All pretty fun and seemingly harmless until the last prank.  After slicing rips into a farmer’s corn sacks, the farmer catches them and stuffs them into a bag.

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The farmer takes them to the miller who promptly tips them into his mill, grinding them into small pieces.

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The ground up bits of Max and Mortiz are gobbled up by the ducks.  A really gruesome end.

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Busch ends the seventh prank with the villagers rejoicing at the demise of the young irritants!

wp-1448828219987.jpegOther everyday farcical gems include the warring neighbours who beat the living daylights out of each other; the miller’s daughter who dispatches 3 thieves in grim fashion; the couple who trash their house while chasing a mouse; the guy driven to distraction by his toothache.

The series called The holy Antony of Padua told over 10 chapters guides us through this priest’s life from birth to arrival at the pearly gates all the while mocking the church and its hypocritical practises.

Most of the illustrated stories are accompanied with verse, which honestly I sometimes found tricky to make out.  This is due to the typeface which is a form of old German handwriting style called Suetterlin – really tricky to work out sometimes; even more difficult in Busch’s original hand (see below).  This is featured later in the book which covers his life, career and includes prints of his sketches in progress.  There is also some of his longer stories at the back of the album.

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His illustrations are delightful if slightly grotesque.  The characters are either portly with rosy cheeks and bulbous noses or they are skinny and wiry and frankly not to be trusted.  The violence is slapstick.  There’s always someone being bashed with a broom, falling through the floor or tripping and injuring themselves in some foolish act.  All really good fun.

This is a beautiful anthology of a little known commentator of life in late 19th century Germany.  I’ve enjoyed dipping into it again after years of having forgotten all about it.

Thanks to my mum for letting me borrow it!

I read this for German Literature Month

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The Collini Case – Ferdinand von Schirach (trans. Anthea Bell)

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For German Lit Month 2012 I read Ferdinand von Schirach’s collection of crime short stories Crime & Guilt largely based on his experiences as one of Germany’s most prominent defence lawyers.  The Collini Case  is Schirach’s first attempt at slightly longer fiction (although it is still short at only 182 pages) and as with the stories in Crime & Guilt Schirach manages to portray the perpetrator of a vicious crime in a humane light by explaining his back story.  The investigation into a seemingly motiveless attack on an elderly industrialist goes nowhere.  This, plus his client’s unwillingness to talk, explain himself or defend his position, causes up-and-coming defence lawyer, Casper Leinen some sleepless nights.  Casper’s personal connection to the victim provides the emotional conflict and personal angle to this story.

Schirach cleverly reveals the moving yet horrifying back story of both killer and victim with such dignity that I could not help but feel some sympathy for the defendant and his decision to commit such a brutal act (in fact my face streamed with tears reading parts of this book as my train chugged through the Belgian countryside towards Bruges last week).  This is a tense and gripping yet precise courtroom drama with a bittersweet ending.  And despite its brevity it packed a punch in Germany; the shame associated with the very specific piece of German law featured and highlighted in this novella led to a review of the marks left on the Ministry of Justice by its past connections to the Nazi party.  Worth reading for that alone.

I read this for German Literature Month

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More Beer – Jakob Arjouni (trans. Anselm Hollo)

I don’t remember buying this book, but I was reminded I owned it when my good friend, the reader of True Blood (!) who I’ve mentioned before, pointed me in the direction of a BBC Radio 4 programme called Foreign Bodies.  In this programme Mark Lawson  presents a history of modern Europe through literary detectives and one of the episodes showcased Jakob Arjouni (still available as a podcast).  The name rang bells, so with an ear on the radio I ran upstairs to one of our bookcases and found More Beer hiding on my German lit shelf (more half a shelf than a full shelf).  I’m not sure how it survived several book culls, but it did, and I’m glad.

More Beer is a crime story written in 1987 and set at that time in and around Frankfurt, featuring private detective Kemal Kayankaya, a German of Turkish origin.  The story revolves around a group of 4 ecological activists accused of and standing trial for the sabotage of a waste pipe belonging to a major chemical plant and the murder of its Managing Director.  Although their lawyer realises there is no doubt of the sabotage charge, he is sure the group did not commit the murder.  There is evidence that there was a fifth member of the group, but no one will talk about this person, least of all the 4 accused, but the fifth saboteur may hold the key to the murder.  Kayankaya is engaged by the lawyer to investigate the case and to find the elusive eco-activist.  Of course, it’s never as straight forward as you might think and his snooping uncovers political and police corruption, as well as family lies and shame.

This is not a long book, but it is fast paced and despite the complexity of the plot, it is fairly straight forward to follow.  If you visit this blog regularly you will have noticed the banner at the top depicting the Chandler novels bound in ribbon, further reading will reveal the story behind the photo, but suffice to say, I love a bit of crime noir and this book is jet black.  I was reminded of the Marlowe books when I re-read More Beer.  Kayankaya is an outsider and like Marlowe, a loner, not only because of his job, but because of his ethnicity.  I have to admit that I was a little sickened at the level of racism the Kayankaya character encountered – I thought Germany in 1987 was more tolerant, but clearly not.  Like Marlowe, Kayankaya gets himself so involved with the case that nothing else matters, even when he is thrown off the job or beaten up, he has a dogged determination to see it through and to find out the perpetrator, even if knowing the answer is for his own satisfaction.  It is almost as if he wants to feel the pain, both physical and mental, that goes with finding out the truth.  He also trusts no one, not even his client and rightly so.  He’s seemingly the only character who treats the women in the story with respect – probably out of fear for what they may do to him more than anything else, but still he keeps them at arm’s length without being disrespectful.  He is a heavy drinker (cognac for breakfast anyone?) and smoker and once on the trail of an answer works and thinks about it 24/7.  Very Marlowe.

Jakob Arjouni has written a few other books featuring Kayankaya, but I haven’t read any of them, and unfortunately this one isn’t currently available from No Exit Press, but if you stumble upon it in a second-hand shop or at the library, it’s worth giving a go. Pacy, engaging and surprisingly not that dated.

If you would like another view of More Beer here’s what Guy over at His Futile Preoccupations had to say about it last year.

I read this as part of German Lit Month (officially finished on 30th Nov, but we were all given an extension – which feels like being let off your homework).  The extension worked quite well for me as although I finished More Beer a while ago, I felt a bit ropey last week and so didn’t get this posted.

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I have only one more book review to post this year – a book I finished some time ago and really should have posted a review of by now.  I think I will then have a December break from reviewing before hitting 2013 nice and refreshed!

Crime & Guilt – Ferdinand von Schirach (trans. Carol Brown Janeway)

Ferdinand von Schirach is not unfamiliar with crime or guilt, as one of Germany’s top defence lawyers he has spent years representing people in trouble.  He also grew up in a family living with the guilt of his grandfather, a senior Nazi in charge of the Hitler Youth who stood trial at Nuremberg.  But that is not what this book is about.  Originally published in separate volumes, Crime & Guilt is a collection of fictionalised stories based on some of the cases he worked on.

The variety of crimes and characters depicted in these volumes is amazing and a testament to the breadth of von Schirach’s experience.  What links all the stories is von Schirach’s resolution to portray even the vilest of criminals in the most humane light as possible (with the exception of “The Funfair”).  I think he manages this by showing the reader the back story and the events leading up to the crime all in 3rd person narrative.  I sympathised with many of the characters because of this approach – I felt I was allowed to form my own opinion about guilt.  Part way through most of the stories, von Schirach inserts himself into the scene and switches to 1st person narration.  He explains the German legal system and how he goes about defending his clients, but never gives his opinion on what they have done – he never judges them himself.

Some of the stories are heart breaking; the story of “Fähner”, a village doctor married to a cruel and violent wife.  After many years of mental and physical abuse, he finally flips and finds himself in trouble.  Or “The Cello”, a story of a brother and sister subjected to cruelty by their rich father, once free of his vice like grip, a sad accident leads to one of them committing a crime.  Some of the stories are clever – The Hedgehog made me wonder at the lengths people will go to, to protect their family and how inventive they can be.  There are also a couple of mad-cap stories, like “The Key”,  which would make good Tarrantino or Guy Ritchie scripts.  There is not a duff story in this double volume and Carol Brown Janeway has done a fantastic job with the translation.  This is a great collection for readers who like true crime or bite sized crime stories.  Ferdinand von Schirach has also recently written his first novel, The Collini Case, if you want to read a review, here’s a great one from Caroline.

I read this for German Literature Month (should have reviewed it last week during genre week – sorry about the delay!)

The Piano Teacher – Elfriede Jelinek (trans. Joachim Neugroschel)

I really don’t know where to start with this book, it has exhausted me and rendered me somewhat speechless.  Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek is one of those writers few have heard of, yet she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004 for her “musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that, with extraordinary linguistic zeal, reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.”

This story is so physical it is tiring to read and really quite disturbing in places.  Erika Kohut, the eponymous musician, teaches at the Vienna Conservertoire by day.  She is in her late 30’s, socially repressed, icy and a failed concert pianist.  During her lessons she enforces the rigours of classical musical technique, extolling the virtues of Schubert, Brahms and Beethoven to her slovenly and bored pupils.   By night she trawls the seedier side of Viennese peep shows and triple X cinemas, spies on couples having sex in parks, indulges in violent sexual fantasy and self harms to a distressing extent.  What makes this side of Erika all the more disturbing is the dispassionate way she goes about the darker part of her life.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator.  It is told as an onlooker, reporting the facts in a detached manner.  This stream of consciousness narrative style makes Erika come across as icier than we know, and sometimes makes the narration seem a little naive and childlike.  This is quite interesting because despite Erika’s age, she still lives at home and her mother treats her like an infant.  Their relationship is strange and claustrophobic to say the least.  It is Love/hate in the truest sense of the saying; Erika runs to her mother when things go wrong, yet on a couple of occasions they get into cat fights, scratch and tear each others hair, a punishment for the sorts of misdemeanors a teenager would get into trouble for.

When Erika becomes involved with a student 10 years her junior, her behaviour spirals out of control, sinking her ever deeper into depravity and towards self-destruction.  It can’t possibly end well, but slightly irritatingly the book comes to a sudden halt leaving everything unresolved.

I found this a really tough book to read.  It does say some interesting things about socially acceptable norms, gender stereotypes and the objectification of women but the oddness of the narrative style, the disturbing self harm and the sadomasochistic obsessions make for difficult reading.  But Erika is a lonely woman, trying to find herself and part of me felt sorry for her, I wanted her to find help – but how predictable and dull would that be?

I read this book as part of German Lit Month

Thank you to An Englishman in Berlin for suggesting this book.

Next World Novella – Matthias Politycki (trans. Anthea Bell)

This is my first review as part of German Literature Month and I don’t think I could have chosen anything more stunning as an opener.  Peirene Press claim to offer translated fiction that can be read in one sitting.  Next World Novella (Jenseitsnovella) packs a punch in its 140 pages.  It is a compelling and quite spellbinding tale of love, death, relationships, deception and disappointment.

Hinrich, a Sinologist in his 60s, enters his study one morning expecting to find his wife Doro, also an academic, editing his work as usual.  She is there, but upon close inspection Hinrich realises the smell he thought was rotting flowers is actually the beginnings of death decay.  His wife has died at the desk while working.  He is devastated, but wants to spend time with her, so doesn’t phone a doctor, ambulance or funeral home.  This day he spends with Doro, while she becomes ever stiffer, will be the most enlightening of his life.  The church tower clock in the square strikes the hours as Hinrich discovers things about his relationship with Doro that he had no inkling of while she was alive.   Doro and Hinrich’s relationship was based on a promise which was a lie all along.  When they were still students, Doro tells Hinrch she is petrified of dying and obsessed with a painting depicting the lake the dead must swim across to reach the afterlife.  Hinrich adores the distant and unattainable Doro, so to win her over he promises to help her when the time comes to cross the lake – she is convinced, but he doesn’t truly believe in the lake and Doro eventually realises his lie.

Before she died, Doro was editing a piece of long forgotten fiction Hinrich had once attempted to write.  She annotates the story with her own commentary, remarking on its similarity to a recent episode in Hinrich’s life.  This episode is triggered by laser eye treatment to correct extreme myopia.  After the treatment his life comes into focus, and he notices things which were previously a blur.  This revelation brings about a sort of mid-life crisis, he becomes infatuated and obsessed with a woman he sees in a bar.  Doro’s annotations reveal that his wife befriends the same woman.  The more he re-reads his fictional story and his wife’s notes, the more he feels disassociated from the woman he married and loved.

In New World Novella Matthias Politycki has created a piece of short fiction that reveals so much in just a few pages.  Through his wife’s notes, Hinrich’s marriage is revealed as something very different to what he thought.  Doro – who is dead at the beginning of the book, reveals her intellect and forthright personality through her annotations.   As Hinrich reads his wife’s vitriolic scribble, the reader is shown that a small change can cause a ripple effect and devastation to relationships.  It is a sad, sad story – I felt really quite emotional reading it.  At the same time, however, I loved the writing so much (and Anthea Bell deserves serious praise here for a fabulous translation), I felt strangely quite uplifted by it.  On a purely personal note, I was reminded of scenes from my student days while studying at Trier University.  I had a job at a Kneipe called Pumpe on a tiny side street in the town centre.  The bars described in this book reminded me of that dingey place where I waited tables or worked behind the bar, with its host of oddball regular drinkers, guzzling beer and Feigling, arguing into the night, the pub regularly staying open until dawn.  These are happy memories for me, and this book brought them to the fore, having not thought about Pumpe for several years.

I will admit that I wasn’t immediately convinced by the ending, but having thought about it a bit more over the last few days, I’ve realised it is there to remind us not to take things for granted and to be honest in our relationships, so I think it is apt.  I’m really pleased to have picked this up as part of German Literature Month and I will try to seek out more translations from Peirene Press as a result.

German Literature Month

I started writing this blog in February and since then I have been concentrating on building up a portfolio of reviews.  There have been several read-alongs and shared reading blog events I have wanted to join, but didn’t really have the confidence.  Now I feel I’m finally ready for a shared reading event and so have signed up for (yes, confirmed my commitment) to German Literature Month hosted by Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life and Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat (follow the links for more info).  If you’ve read any of my blog, you will know I have familial links to Germany, studied it at A Level and as part of my degree, I even spent a year at Trier University.  I still try to read a German language book per year in the original, although haven’t managed it for a couple of years.

This blog event is an opportunity to explore some books I might not normally pick up and I’m looking forward to finding some gems as I follow the other participants.  This is how the hosts have structured the month:

Week 1 (November 1-7) Novellas, plays and poems
Week 2 (November 8-14) Literary Novels
Week 3 (November 15-21) Genre Fiction – Crime, Fantasy, Horror, Romance
Week 4 (November 22-30) Read as you please

2012 is also the bi-centennial of the birth of the Brothers Grimm. We can’t let it pass without a Brothers Grimm Readathon. So we’ve put that in the calendar from 22-26 November.

The point is, to use the weekly guidelines, read and then write a review of as many German language books as possible.  At the moment my plan is to read at least 3 books (I’m not that fast, you see).  I have already finished one, hurrah!

The books I have in mind are:

  • Week 1 Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki (trans. Anthea Bell) DONE
  • Week 2 The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek (trans. Joachim Neugroschel) Thanks to An Englishman in Berlin for the tip on this one
  • Week 3 Crime & Guilt by Ferdinand von Schirach (trans. Carol Brown Janeway)
  • Week 4 Not sure yet

The review for Next World Novella will come in the next few days.  I hope I can keep up!