‘Collected Stories’ by Richard Yates

As I was in the mood for some American realism I turned to a copy of Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, a 1962 short story collection by Richard Yates; when I had finished it I wanted to read more. Yates’ second volume of short-stories, Liars in Love, was published in 1981; all the stories from both of these publications are included in the Collected Stories as well as nine more that had only appeared in magazines. Annoyingly the Vintage version gives us a list of copyright dates and a list of the magazines they originally appeared in but they do not clarify which story was published when or where. A short introduction with a bit of info would have been nice but these Vintage editions do have some cracking 1950s style covers (see below) which partially compensates for this.

Reading all of Yates’s stories in one go highlights the similarity of the stories. Most of them are set in the ’50s or ’60s and seem to be based on autobiographical elements of his life as the characters are always of the same age as Yates, they are sometimes about writers, or younger men working in offices, or stories from a childhood in the ’30s. They often portray marriages that are on the verge of falling apart with couples arguing, separating and cheating on each other. There are a few stories set in a T.B. clinic and some concerning WWII veterans. But he also occasionally writes from a child’s perspective or from a woman’s perspective and he does this amazingly well. Some readers may find Yates a bit bleak but I don’t find his fiction bleak, just a bit ‘grubby’ at times.

In A Glutton for Punishment we learn about Walter Henderson’s childhood love of playing dead, or rather the dramatic act of dying after being shot by other boys. Walter wasn’t very good at sports but he was a master of dying. Twenty-five years later Walter is at work in his office, he’s anxious as he’s certain he’s about to be sacked as he has underperformed since taking on his current role.

There was nothing to do now but let the thing happen and try to take it as gracefully as possible.
   That was when the childhood memory began to prey on his mind, for it suddenly struck him—and the force of it sent his thumbnail biting deep into the secret matchbook—that letting things happen and taking them gracefully had been, in a way, the pattern of his life. There was certainly no denying that the role of good loser had always held an inordinate appeal for him.

Sure enough he’s called into the office to be fired. But this is where Walter ‘shines’ as he says goodbye to his colleagues, thanking them for their help over the years, he collects his possessions and confidently exits the building—it’s a perfect performance. He thinks about trying to keep it a secret from his wife until he can find another job but later on that evening the temptation to ‘perform’ again gets the better of him.

“Well, darling—” he began. His right hand came up and touched the middle button of his shirt, as if to unfasten it, and then with a great deflating sigh he collapsed backward into the chair, one foot sliding out on the carpet and the other curled beneath him. It was the most graceful thing he had done all day. “They got me,” he said.

In Builders the narrator tells us how he had a low-paid job on the financial news desk of a paper back in 1948. He was a young writer who dreamt of being the next Hemingway but he ended up getting involved with ghost-writing a series of stories for a cab-driver, Bernie Silver, who tricks him into writing up some of his notes as stories. Bernie dreams of his book selling well and eventually a film being made from it. He claims to know people in the movie business who will help and dangles the promise of future royalties in front of the writer. Bernie is not quite a conman but he has a dream to ‘build’ his book and he intends to do it any way he can, even if that means duping young writers into writing up his stories for him for next to nothing. It’s an entertaining story.

Fun with a Stranger is about the narrator’s childhood experience of his third grade teacher, Miss Snell. She had a reputation amongst the schoolchildren as a bit of an old dragon. As I love a good literary character description here is a description of Miss Snell:

She was probably sixty, a big rawboned woman with a man’s face, and her clothes, if not her very pores, seemed always to exude that dry essence of pencil shavings and chalk dust that is the smell of school. She was strict and humorless, preoccupied with rooting out the things she held intolerable: mumbling, slumping, daydreaming, frequent trips to the bathroom, and, the worst of all, “coming to school without proper supplies.”

The story leads up to a suitably grim ‘Christmas party’ organised by Miss Snell on the last day of school before Christmas.

If anything the seven stories in Liars in Love are even better than those in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness; they’re a bit longer, a bit more polished and there is more variety. A Natural Girl begins with Susan Andrews, a university student, telling her father that she doesn’t love him anymore. Susan ends up marrying one of the lecturers and the story covers the resulting ups and downs of this strange marriage. As usual with Yates’ couples they end up separating; Susan tells David, as she did with her dad, that she no longer loves him. When asked why, she replies:

“There is no why,” she said. “There’s no more why to not loving than there is to loving. Isn’t that something most intelligent people understand?”

Trying Out for the Race is about the headstrong unmotherly single mother of Nancy and her friend Lucy. They decide to live together as a way of pooling their resources. Elizabeth doesn’t get on with Lucy or her children, Nancy doesn’t get on with Lucy’s children or her mother. It’s a chaotic household and gets more chaotic when one of Elizabeth’s ex’s shows up. In the title story Warren Matthews moves to London with his wife and child. When she leaves him and returns to America he gets hitched up with a friendly prostitute and finds it difficult disentangling himself from this arrangement. Saying Goodbye to Sally is about a New York writer, Jack Fields, who has just finished his first novel and upon getting a job to write a screenplay moves temporarily to Los Angeles. He hooks up with his agent’s secretary, Sally, an attractive slightly older woman. She introduces him to her unusual friends and housemates.

“It’s beginning to sound like you live in a pretty fucked-up household.”
   “Oh, I know,” she said. “Somebody else I knew called it ‘degenerate.’ That seemed too strong a word, but later I could see what he meant.”

It’s a fun story with loads of crazy characters. Ok, I’ve raced through the Liars in Love stories a bit but I should also mention that the nine extra ‘Uncollected Stories’ are well worth reading as well. I want to read even more Yates now.

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Brexit is Dreyfus

I recently read a book on Émile Zola called The Life and Times of Emile Zola by F.W.J. Hemmings which was published by Elek Books in 1977. There was, of course, a chapter on the Dreyfus Affair which had this cartoon which humorously shows the divisions within French society at the time. For some strange reason it made me think of the current situation in the UK over Brexit.

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‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’ – Exceptional Excerpt

My last post was my final contribution to German Literature Month at the end of November. Since then I read several books to get my TBR pile down in order to complete the GoodReads TBR challenge I’d signed up to. I also read a couple of short story collections by William Trevor but never got round to posting anything about them—do you also find that short story collections can sometimes be awkward to review? Over Christmas I read Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson, which was a chunky book on the First World War from Germany’s and Austria-Hungary’s perspective. I had intended to read this in November, both as part of GLM (though it wasn’t really eligible) and because it was the centenary of the end of WWI but time ran away from me. It was an interesting book as we rarely see WWI from the German side; it was at times a bit of a slog though, and I had intended to post something on it this weekend but I didn’t take any notes and, again, time has run away from me.

Continuing the German theme I am currently reading Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, a book that has taken me a bit of time to get into and one I very nearly abandoned, but I am halfway through and finished today’s reading with the quote below. It is quite an optimistic quote but it comes at quite a bleak point in the story where the main character has just been shoved out of a getaway car by his comrade and friend into the path of a chasing police car. Berlin Alexanderplatz is full of these vignettes or sketches away from the main text and is not typical of the rest of the narrative. I hope you enjoy it.

   Let us be happy when the sun rises and its beautiful light is here. Gas light may go out, electric light, too. People get up when the alarm-clock sounds, a new day has begun. If it was April 8th yesterday, it is the 9th today, if it was Sunday, it is now Monday. The year has not changed, nor the month, but a change has occurred nevertheless. The world has rolled ahead. The sun has risen. It is not certain what this sun is. Astronomers concern themselves a great deal with this body. According to them, it is the central body of our planetary system; for our earth is only a small planet, and what, indeed, are we? When a sun rises like that and we are glad, we should really be sad, for what are we, anyway; the sun is 300,000 times greater than the earth; and what a host of numbers and zeros there still are, and all they have to say is this: We are but a zero, nothing at all, just nothing. Simply ridiculous, isn’t it, to be happy over that.
   And yet, we are glad when the beautiful light is here, white and strong, and when it comes into the streets; and in the rooms all the colours awaken, and faces are there, human features. It is agreeable to touch shapes with one’s hands, but it is a joy to see, to see, to see, to see colours and lines. And we are glad, now we can show what we are, we act, we live. We are also glad in April for that bit of warmth, how glad the flowers are that they can grow! Surely that must be an error, a mistake, those terrible numbers with all the zeros!
   So, go on rising, sun, you don’t frighten us. We don’t care about your many miles, your diameter, your volume. Warm sun, just rise, bright light, arise. You are not big, you are not small, you are happiness.

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‘The Nibelungenlied’ (GLM VIII)

With what a truly savage din did all those swords ring out as shield-braces flew from their housing with the gems dropping smashed into the blood! They fought with such ferocity that men will never fight so again.

The Nibelungenlied is an epic poem written around 1200 by an anonymous writer. This Penguin edition, translated into English prose by A.T. Hatto, was first published in 1965. It is an epic tale of murder and revenge that ends in one almighty bloodbath—which has hopefully piqued your interest—or possibly disgust. Although there is a lot of fighting at the end, the rest of the book contains similar elements to the contemporary, or near contemporary, Arthurian legends from France and England. It is not as bleak as I have made out: there is even some humour.

Written around 1200 The Nibelungenlied covers fictional events from around six or seven hundred years earlier. It begins with Kriemhild, a beautiful Burgundian maiden, sister of three warrior knights, Gunther, Gernot and Giselher. One day she dreamt she had reared a falcon which was attacked by two eagles. When her mother explains that the falcon represents her future husband Kriemhild declares that she intends never to marry. We are then introduce to Siegfried, from Xanten in the Netherlands, son of Siegmund and Sieglind, who is a handsome knight. Siegfried hears about Kriemhild’s beauty and sets off to Worms, Burgundy to take Kriemhild as his wife. Full of bravado, Siegfried threatens to take the King Gunther’s land from him: I will wrest from you by force all that you possess! Gunther and his vassals are amazed but manage to defuse the situation and Siegfried hangs around hoping to meet Kriemhild. It is revealed that in his past adventures Siegfried fought the Nibelungs and seized their vast treasure as well as a cloak of invisibility. Siegfried had also fought a dragon and bathed in its blood which made his skin so hard that no weapon could pierce it. Oh, and he’s incredibly strong as well. Gunther is a rather ineffectual king and relies on the advice of his vassal, Hagen, lord of Troneck, who is a Machiavellian character. Gunther makes use of Siegfried’s warlike nature to fight some of his wars for him. Gunther has heard of a beautiful and incredibly strong maiden queen from Iceland, called Brunhild, who will marry the man who can beat her at three physical feats of strength; those that fail are killed. Siegfried offers to help Gunther win Brunhild’s hand if Gunther agrees to Siegfried marrying Kriemhild. Gunther doesn’t have a chance on his own against the formidable Brunhild and so with Siegfried’s help, whilst wearing his cloak of invisibility, Gunther manages to win the hand of Brunhild.

Gunther arrives back at Worms with Brunhild and a lavish celebration is organised. At the dinner Brunhild is surprised to see that Siegfried, whom she believes to be Gunther’s vassal, is to marry Gunther’s sister, Kriemhild. Although Gunther tells Brunhild that Siegfried is also a king she does not believe him; this confusion over Siegfried is the cause of much of Brunhild’s actions throughout the rest of the story as well as the following amusing scene on their wedding night.

   He would have lavished caresses and endearments, had the Queen suffered him to do so, but she flew into a rage that deeply shocked him — he had hoped to meet with ‘friend’, yet what he met was ‘foe’!
   ‘Sir,’ she said, ‘you must give up the thing you have set your hopes on, for it will not come to pass. Take good note of this: I intend to stay a maiden till I have learned the truth about Siegfried.’
   Gunther grew very angry with her. He tried to win her by force, and tumbled her shift for her, at which the haughty girl reached for the girdle of stout silk cord that she wore about her waist, and subjected him to great suffering and shame: for in return for being baulked of her sleep, she bound him hand and foot, carried him to a nail, and hung him on the wall. She had put a stop to his love-making! As to him, he all but died, such strength had she exerted.

When Gunther confides these events to Siegfried, Siegfried offers to help him, with the aid of his cloak again, to overpower Brunhild in the bedroom, but Gunther insists that Siegfried musn’t make love to her first. Whether Siegfried does or not is left ambiguous but he does take Brunhild’s ring and girdle as a prize which he later presents to Kriemhild as a gift. Gunther is now happy and Siegfried returns to the Netherlands with his wife to live together.

Brunhild continues to wonder how Siegfried is allowed to marry Kriemhild. She obviously doesn’t believe that Siegfried is a true king—why she doesn’t believe this is one of the mysteries of this story—and she probably suspects that she was duped by Gunther. Brunhild wishes to see Kriemhild and thrash this out. In a brilliant chapter, with the heading How the queens railed at each other, they do exactly that: they argue and Kriemhild reveals that she has Brunhild’s ring and girdle and that they were obtained by Siegfried when he made love to her. Siegfried tries to smooth things over by denying this, but now those loyal to Brunhild feel that Siegfried should pay for boasting that he had made love to their queen. Hagen now plots to murder Siegfried. He inveigles information from Kriemhild concerning Siegfried’s ‘impenetrable skin’—it turns out that when Siegfried was bathing in the dragon’s blood a leaf got stuck on his back between the shoulder blades, leaving a vulnerable spot on his skin à la Achilles. Siegfried is murdered by Hagen whilst out on a hunt. n.b. the vulnerable spot is marked on his clothing with a cross. Kriemhild thinks at this point that Hagen is an ally and by telling him about this vulnerability of Siegfried’s, Hagen can help protect him.

Then, as Siegfried bent over the brook and drank, Hagen hurled the spear at the cross, so that the hero’s heart’s blood leapt from the wound and splashed against Hagen’s clothes. No warrior will ever do a darker deed. Leaving the spear fixed in Siegfried’s heart, he fled in wild desperation, as he had never fled before from any man.

The lady Kriemhild’s lord fell among the flowers, where you could see the blood surging from his wound. Then—and he had cause—he rebuked those who had plotted his foul murder.

Events so far only cover about half of the book. The second half is quite different to the first. Kriemhild marries King Etzel from Hungary and has a son but she is determined to get her revenge on Hagen. She entices him, along with her brothers and an accompanying army, to visit her in Hungary. The story now follows the Burgundians as they travel to Hungary and once they arrive it is not long before they are attacked by forces friendly to Kriemhild, who has been transformed into a fascinating avenging she-devil. She does not care who dies as long as Hagen is amongst the dead. At one point Kriemhild orders a hall, which is occupied by the Burgundian knights, to be guarded and set on fire. Most die, but a few, including Hagen, manage to hold out by taking desperate measures.

   ‘Alas, alas!—We had far rather be killed fighting,’ a number of them cried. ‘God have mercy on us!—We are lost! This is monstrous vengeance that the Queen is taking on us!’
   ‘It is all over with us,’ said another of those within. ‘Of what use to us is the friendly welcome we had from the King? This fierce heat has given me such a terrible thirst that I fear I shall soon expire amid all these perils.’
   ‘You worthy knights,’ cried Hagen, ‘if any of you are plagued with thirst let them drink the blood here—in such heat it will be better than wine! In present circumstances it is the best that can be done.
   One of the warriors then went over to a corpse and, removing his helmet and kneeling over a wound, began to drink the blood that oozed from it and, little used to it though he was, he thought it very good. ‘Heaven reward you, lord Hagen,’ said the weary man, ‘for having taught me such an excellent beverage! I have never had better wine poured for me. If I live for any time, I shall always have a friendly regard for you.’

I must admit I was a bit wary about reading this book at first but as I had enjoyed reading some Arthurian books a few years ago I felt I was prepared for it. Medieval literature is, of course, quite different from modern novels; we don’t really get to understand why characters do certain things and they have different morals, sensibilities and prejudices to us—but that is also what makes it interesting in my view. Hatto’s translation was very readable though some readers may find it a bit too old-fashioned. I am glad that it was translated into prose rather than verse—Hatto mentions that it would be virtually impossible to translate into verse but I have seen some editions about. This edition also contains a fifty page essay at the back of the book called An Introduction To a Second Reading together with several appendices. Have you read The Nibelungenlied?

This will probably be my final contribution to this year’s German Literature Month—but one never knows.

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‘Natura Morta’ by Josef Winkler (GLM VIII)

I was trying to avoid Austrian authors for this year’s German Literature Month but here I am with my second Austrian contribution already. Josef Winkler is an author I hadn’t heard of before but when I inadvertently came across his books, whilst trying to decide what to read this year, they piqued my interest, especially this one, Natura Morta: A Roman Novella. It was first published in German in 1998 as Natura morta: Eine römische Novelle. This translation was published in 2014 by Contra Mundum Press and was translated by Adrian West.

‘Natura Morta’ means ‘still life’ in Italian or ‘by death’ in Latin — or at least according to Google Translate — both phrases are relevant to this novella. There is little plot, instead Winkler uses a succession of images or descriptive vignettes of daily life set around a modern-day Roman market-place and Saint Peter’s Square. Winkler concentrates his highly cinematic eye on the mundane, such as advertisements or t-shirt messages, and the muckier aspects of life, such as filthy fingernails or offal discarded in the street. Instead of a plot we get recurring images and characters that help give the work some structure. The book is split into six parts with the first centering around a market-place. Winkler depicts the scenes in close-up, concentrating on specific details: we see gypsy girls selling underwear, people carrying meat in plastic shopping bags, butchers butchering sheeps’ heads, the dirty fingernails of fishmongers etc. Here are a couple of examples from the first part:

A black-veiled nun, holding plastic bags full of cucumbers, apricots, and onions in one hand and pressing two tall blonde Barbie dolls wrapped in plastic to her breast with the other, stopped before the tomato vendor, whose vegetable knife hung from a lanyard around his neck, laid the dolls on a wooden crate, and asked for a few kilos of tomatoes on the vine.

Another gypsy girl — two gold upper teeth shone in the void of her harelip — lifted her right breast slightly and placed her nipple in the mouth of her child, whose eyelids were sealed shut with pus.

One of the characters we are introduced to is Piccoletto, a sixteen-year-old son of a fig vendor, who works at the Damino fish-stand in the market-place. Whenever Piccoletto appears in the narrative it is mentioned that he has ‘long black eyelashes nearly grazing his cheeks’.

The second part takes place in Saint Peter’s Square. Piccoletto is sitting around watching the girls nearby whilst we, via the narrator, watch him closely, intimately, concentrating on the spittle on his lips as he drinks some water or on his testicles seen through the leg-hole of his shorts. There are people selling plastic Jesuses, tourists, children, policemen all passing in front of Winkler’s lens. Here’s a description of a man from this section.

A little humpbacked man with a waxen face, his cadaverous skin covered in black blotches, crossed himself and kissed the black fingertips of his emaciated hand, while a group of nodding bishops dressed in red, wiping the sweat from their chins with kerchiefs embroidered with yellow mitres, walked past him through Saint Peter’s Square. His eyelids and eyelashes were painted black with mascara, his eyes were yellowish and blood-spotted, his sparse hair was dyed black, his moustache flecked with gray. Wheezing, he pulled his mouth open and closed and grasped his throat with a hand covered in golden rings.

Although we have this onslaught of descriptive text, little plot developments do begin to occur, and they are sometimes a bit sinister. A ten-year-old girl had been ogling Piccoletto’s testicles earlier on this section and at the end we are told that he leaves the square accompanied by the girl; we have no idea who she is or whether they are related or know each other or where her parents are.

N.b. I reveal in this paragraph a significant detail of one of the characters. if you don’t wish to find out then you may wish to skip to the next paragraph.
The narrative returns to the market-place and the images of butchered meat, offal, gypsy-girls selling underwear, babies with pus-encrusted eyes, neo-Nazis, Moroccan rent boys, nuns with Barbie dolls, rotting fish. Unexpectedly Piccoletto gets hit by a fire-engine and dies, his distraught employer brings his body into the shop, whilst Winkler’s descriptions of the event is merged in with the continuing descriptions of other events; Piccoletto’s body is described in the same, meticulous, dispassionate manner as the meat that was being butchered and sold. The recurring description of Piccoletto’s eyelashes continues, only now they are those of a dead boy:

The long, damp eyelash hairs of his open left eye grazed his eyebrow, the long, blood-caked eyelash hairs of his closed right eye grazed his freckle-dotted cheek.

This short novella will not be to everyone’s taste; the squeamish may wish to avoid it, as will die-hard fans of plot-driven novels, but if you liked the quotes above and like the sound of a novella with descriptive prose and a cinematic feel then you might enjoy this book. Contra Mundum Press have also published When the Time Comes and Graveyard of Bitter Oranges, both of which sound like interesting reads.

This is my third contribution to German Literature Month VIII.

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‘Tales of Old Vienna and Other Prose’ by Adalbert Stifter (GLM VIII)

At one point I was seriously considering reading Witiko, Stifter’s six hundred page book set in medieval Bohemia, for this year’s German Literature Month but in the end I plumped for this shorter book, a collection of stories and prose which was published in 2016 by Ariadne Press in California. The contents of Tales of Old Vienna and Other Prose were translated by Alexander Stillmark who also provides an introduction. This collection contains five short stories and four short prose works including a personal account of an eclipse of the sun in 1842. The first story in the collection is The Condor (1839), Stifter’s first published story, which is quite interesting initially but one which soon becomes a pretty standard nineteenth century story of doomed love. The shortest story, at only five pages, is Confidence an entertaining tale of unwitting parricide followed by suicide. But the bulk of the book consists of the three stories: The Ancient Seal (Das alte Siegel, 1844), Tourmaline (Turmalin, 1851) and Granite (Granit, 1848). Tourmaline and Granite were also published in the Coloured Stones (Bunte Steine, 1853) two-volume collection which also includes the sublime Rock Crystal (Bergkristall, 1845). These two stories are easily on a par with Rock Crystal as they share the same calm, natural, modern tone that Stifter used in that work.

The Ancient Seal is an interesting tale in which a boy, Hugo, is raised by his father to value self-reliance and honour above everything else. At the age of twenty-one his father urges his son to leave him and make his way in the world. This is during the period when the German states were occupied by Napoleon’s forces; Hugo, under the influence of his father, is determined to join the army so that he will be prepared when Germany is ready to rid itself of its occupiers. On his father’s death Hugo inherits an ancient seal which bears the words: servandum tantummodo honos, or, maintaining only honour. One day Hugo gets a mysterious letter from someone requesting a meeting at a church the following day. He meets an old man who doesn’t explain why he’s requested the meeting but asks Hugo to meet him regularly at the same place and time—only Hugo doesn’t see the man again. Instead he becomes intrigued by a woman who visits the church at the same time as he and who, although dressed as an old woman, appears to Hugo to be much younger. Over a period of time Hugo ends up making her acquaintance; he can visit her but only at certain times of the day and he must not enquire about her life, past or present. They begin to meet more regularly and both are obviously in love with each other. And then one day Celeste, the mysterious woman, is gone. He makes enquiries with the owner of the house, returns to the church each day but as he knows nothing about her—he is even unsure if the name she gave him is her real name—he gives up hope.

Hugo thought that it simply could not be otherwise; he would surely somewhere see that beautiful, beloved face that he had daily seen for so long!
But he did not see it.
After his search had gone on for some months, after winter had already cast its snowflakes and its blanket of ice over the city, he gave up his efforts. He sat in his room and held his lovely, weary head in both his hands.

Well, does he find her again? I thought I knew how this story was going to end but I was quite mistaken as Stifter provides us with just about the most anti-Romantic ending possible as Hugo is more concerned with ‘maintaining honour’ than love. Hugo is a damn fool but I’m unclear if that is what Stifter wants us to believe.

Tourmaline is set in Vienna and begins by describing ‘a fellow who was something of an oddity’; he was about forty years old, lived in an apartment with his young attractive wife and their baby daughter and had acquired the nickname of ‘the pensioner’. The walls of the main room were covered in pictures of great men. In order to view these pictures he had had chairs fitted with castors and ladders, also on castors, to see those pictures higher up. The pensioner becomes friends with an actor called Dall who visits regularly. Dall ends up having an affair with the pensioner’s wife and when the pensioner finds out he flies into a rage and intends to confront Dall, but Dall has made himself scarce. Then one day the pensioner’s wife disappears—she just walks out and doesn’t return. Then not long after his wife’s disappearance the pensioner also disappers with his daughter leaving all of his possessions, except for a flute and money, in the flat. All sorts of stories are spread around about the fate of the family but eventually the contents of the apartment are sold at auction and the apartment is let out to a new tenant. The story continues a few years later with the narrator retelling the story of a female friend. One day this woman spots an odd couple in the street outside her house.

For as I looked down to see what sort of people were about, I caught sight of a strange couple. A man of rather advanced years, judging by his back which was turned towards me, dressed in a thin, yellow swanskin jacket, pale blue trousers, heavy shoes and a little round hat, as he walked down the street. He was leading a girl, dressed no less oddly than himself in a brown cope which was draped about her shoulders almost like a toga. But the girl had so large a head, enough to startle anyone, that it kept causing people to stare at it. Both of them went their way at a moderate pace; but both were so clumsy and awkward that it was immediately evident they were not used to Vienna and that they were incapable of behaving like other folk.

Well you can no doubt guess who these odd characters are. The narrator tries to follow them but loses them. In the rest of this wonderful story the narrator eventually meets up with this couple and gets to find out about their past though intriguingly much is left unexplained.

The events of the story Granite take place in Oberplan, Bohemia, which is Stifter’s birthplace. The story begins with a boy sitting on large stone outside his house where he can observe everything that’s going on. This stone has been there for many years and no-one can remember a time when it wasn’t there. One day a ‘man of strange appearance’ turns up wheeling a barrow with a barrel of cart-grease which he would sell to the villagers. Watching this man going about his business is fascinating for the boy.

It so happened I was barefoot, as was often the case, and had pants on which had grown too short over time. Suddenly he looked up at me from his work and said: “Would you like to have your feet greased?” I had always held the man to be a great marvel and felt honoured by his familiarity and so stretched both my feet out to him. He dipped his spoon into the bung-hole, brought it over and drew a long streak down each of my feet. The liquid spread out nicely over the skin, had an exceptionally clear, golden brown colour and wafted its pleasent resinous odour up to me. It gradually spread across and down the curves of my feet.

The boy then proceeds to walk indoors across the newly washed parlour floor much to the horror of his mother who gives him a thrashing and returns indoors to clean up the mess. The boy’s kindly grandfather then slowly and methodically cleans up the boy’s feet, gets him some clean clothes and shoes and takes him out for a walk, probably to get him away from the mother’s wrath. The rest of this calm, beautiful story consists of the boy and the grandfather taking a walk and the grandfather telling the boy a story—a story similar to Rock Crystal. The story goes back to a time when the plague was spreading throughout the country and a family tried to escape it by going higher into the mountains; the only one to survive the plague is a boy who discovers a sickly girl in the briar whom he nurses back to health. It turns out that the grandfather’s story is about the grease-seller’s ancestors and by the time he has finished his story they have returned home where all is now calm and the boy’s mother forgives her son.

This book was read as part of German Literature Month VIII.

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‘America’ by Franz Kafka (GLM VIII)

Although I would class Franz Kafka as one of my favourite authors I haven’t read anything by him for many years and I know very little about his life. The Trial was the first book that I read by Kafka which was then followed with The Castle, Amerika (I’m sure the copy I initially read retained the Germanic title though it must have been the same translation as here) and a few short stories including Metamorphosis, of course. I remember finding Amerika a bit dull in comparison to the other novels but recently I had begun to wonder what I’d make of it now—so I thought I’d read it for this year’s German Literature Month. My Penguin copy makes use of the 1938 translation by Willa and Edwin Muir together with an introduction by Edwin Muir and a short postscript by Max Brod, Kafka’s literary executor, both of which were informative. It should be noted that America was unfinished, it was abandoned by Kafka around 1914 and published posthumously in 1927.

Kafka sets the scene from the start. Here’s the first paragraph.

As Karl Rossmann, a poor boy of sixteen who had been packed off to America by his parents because a servant girl had seduced him and got herself with child by him, stood on the liner slowly entering the harbour of New York, a sudden burst of sunshine seemed to illumine the Statue of Liberty, so that he saw it in a new light, although he had sighted it long before. The arm with the sword rose up as if newly stretched aloft, and round the figure blew the free winds of heaven.

Kafka had never been to America but he read a lot of travel literature so we must assume that he knew that Liberty does not hold a sword. Anyway, the opening paragraph is certainly enticing and I was surprised, given my previous lack of enthusiasm for the book, to find it an excellent, and humorous, read. The novel follows Karl’s peregrinations through America, though he doesn’t travel far from New York. Karl is adrift, abandoned by his parents, in a strange land and has to make his own way. Similar to Kafka’s other protagonists Karl is faced with authority figures who make reasonable and unreasonable demands and whilst Karl can object to these demands and try to wriggle out of them, in the end he has to submit. The events in America are, however, presented in a much more realistic way than in The Trial or The Castle.

Even before he disembarks Karl ends up wandering about the ship and getting lost—it doesn’t bode well. He meets up with a stoker, Schubal, and helps him plead a grievance he has with his supervisor to the captain of the ship. Karl has some remarkably good luck in that his Uncle Jacob, a prosperous business man and Senator, recognises him and takes him to his luxurious house. Things are looking rosey for Karl! Uncle Jacob buys a piano for Karl and also arranges horse-riding lessons for him. Karl studies English as it is intended that Karl will work for his uncle; as his English improves he is introduced to some of his uncle’s business friends, Green and Pollunder. This is where things start to get a little, well Kafkaesque, as Karl is invited to visit Mr Pollunder, which Karl sees as a positive thing, but his uncle seems to be opposed to it but ultimately leaves it up to Karl to make the decision. Karl can’t satisfy both his uncle and Mr Pollunder. Here we have a dialogue between Karl and Pollunder on their way to Pollunder’s house.

   ‘My uncle wasn’t annoyed at my going?’
   ‘Not at all! He didn’t mean all that seriously. He has your education so much at heart.’
   ‘Did he tell you himself that he didn’t mean it seriously?’
   ‘Oh yes,’ said Mr Pollunder, drawling the words, and thus proving that he could not tell a lie.
   ‘It’s strange how unwilling he was to give me leave to visit you, although you are a friend of his.’
   Mr Pollunder too, although he did not admit it, could find no explanation for the problem, and both of them, as they drove through the warm evening in Mr Pollunder’s car, kept turning it over in their minds for a long time, although they spoke of other things.

Strange indeed. Karl doesn’t yet realise how much he has annoyed his uncle. During his short stay at Mr Pollunder’s house Karl manages to get on the wrong side of both Pollunder and his daughter Clara. In a marvellous scene Clara tries to seduce Karl and when he resists he gets wrestled to the floor by her and she threatens to box his ears. After getting lost in the huge building he eventually finds Pollunder and tells him he wishes to leave. Mr Green, who has turned up, ends up issuing Karl with a letter from his uncle stating that because Karl left him that evening to visit Mr Pollunder he wants nothing more to do with him. In one short evening Karl has managed to annoy his uncle, Clara and Pollunder and as a result he is turned out of the house with no more than his suitcase and umbrella. The letter from his uncle is priceless and as a taster here are the opening lines:

DEAR NEPHEW,
   As you will already have realized during our much too brief companionship, I am essentially a man of principle. That is unpleasant and depressing not only to those who come in contact with me, but also to myself as well. Yet it is my principles that have made me what I am, and no one can ask me to deny my fundamental self. Not even you, my dear nephew.

He ends the letter by saying that

…I have to keep telling myself again and again, Karl, that nothing good comes out of your family.

As good as this novel is so far it gets even better as Karl meets up with two disreputable characters, Delamarche and Robinson. He suspects they are out to rob him of the few possessions he owns and manages to ditch them by getting a job as a lift-boy in a hotel until, a few months later, an extremely drunk Robinson turns up and gets him the sack. There are some great scenes here; even when Karl is given the sack from the hotel he still can’t escape from the clutches of the sadistic Head Porter. When he does finally escape it is only to fall into the hands of Delamarche, who has wormed his way into the household, and affections, of a wealthy singer called Brunelda. Having virtually enslaved his old friend Robinson, Delamarche now intends to do the same with Karl.

The first seven chapters form a continuous narrative; but chapter eight, titled The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, is a bit later in the story and according to Max Brod was intended to be the concluding chapter. This chapter has Karl attending a recruitment drive by a theatre company that is almost surreal. It is such a shame that Kafka decided to abandon this novel as I’m sure it would have been a success at the time. I shall have to find out why he stopped; Brod just states that he ‘broke off his work on this novel with unexpected suddenness.’ Does anyone know why he didn’t continue with it? as it seems to be so close to completion.

My previous read was Guignol’s Band by Céline and it was intersting to note the similarity in the themes of both books: both have a young man adrift in a foreign land who is basically morally good but who falls in with disreputable, though entertaining (for us), characters. Events seem to conspire against the protagonist though things have a way of working themselves out.

I read this as a contribution to this year’s German Literature Month.

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Filed under Kafka, Franz