‘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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‘Guignol’s Band’ by Céline (1944 Club)

Readers, friends, less than friends, enemies, Critics! Here I am at it again with Book I of Guignol! Don’t judge me too soon! Wait awhile for what’s to follow! Book II! Book III! it all clears up! develops, straightens out! As is, 3/4 of it’s missing! Is that a way to do things? It had to be printed fast because with things as they are you don’t know who’s living or dead!

So begins Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s third ‘proper’ novel, published in 1943 if you believe the blurb on the back of the book, but according to Frédéric Vitoux (Céline: A Biography, 1992) (and Wikipedia) was actually published in March 1944. Guignol’s Band is vintage Céline, but it’s fair to say that he’s a problematic writer. I don’t want to go in to too much detail but a few facts about the writer should be known before proceeding. First of all he wrote two ground-breaking works before the Second World War, Journey to the End of the Night (Voyage au bout de la nuit) in 1932 and Death on the Installment Plan or Death on Credit (Mort à crédit) in 1936. Following a visit to the Soviet Union he published a pamphlet in 1936, Mea Culpa, attacking communism. Over the next few years he published three more book-length pamphlets that were extremely anti-Semitic — see here for my review of one of them. Although he wasn’t one for joining groups or parties his anti-Semitism and anti-communism meant that he collaborated, to some extent, with the Nazi occupiers. He was at least seen by others as a collaborator and so only months after the publication of Guignol’s Band and with the advancement of the Allied powers, fearing for his life, he tried to escape to Denmark with his wife Lucette and their cat Bébert; this period is covered in the trilogy Castle to Castle, North and Rigodoon. He made it to Denmark, was tried in France, in absentia, of collaboration and was allowed to return in 1951. He died in 1961.

As the first sentences quoted above indicate Guignol’s Band is only the first part of a longer work; the sequel, London Bridge: Guignol’s Band II, was published posthumously in 1964. As with most of his later works Céline takes a while to get going; the book begins with a preface, some disjointed scenes (some brilliant, some not so good) and then slowly some form of narrative develops. Céline developed his own idiosyncratic style, with the three dots and loads of exclamation marks, that annoys some readers but pleases others. I’m, of course, one of the latter and feel his style is perfect for what he’s trying to achieve; Céline excels in character studies as well as chaotic and hallucinatory scenes told in an impressionistic style. It’s sometimes exhausting reading Céline as the staccato narrative pulls us along at a breakneck speed—but we get the sense that we’re going nowhere and really just circling around. Céline amusingly pokes fun at his own style now and then:

I’m doddering around like an old bumblebee, I’m all tangled up in the air, Ah sees it, I ain’t tellin’ things in the right order, what about it! You’ll excuse me somewhat, kidding about my memories, digressing from rhyme to reason, jabbering away about my friends instead of showing you around!…Let’s go! and let’s keep going!…Let me show you around nicely…straying neither right nor left!…

My aged copy of Guignol’s Band which I bought new in the early ’90s. It looks so old but I love it.

Guignol’s Band takes place in London during the First World War where it centres on the London underworld, populated by many shady characters such as pimps, prostitutes, drug-dealers, dodgy cops, charlatans, deserters etc. We are introduced to Cascade, a pimp who is, rather reluctantly, taking on the girls of other pimps who are going to war. Ferdinand, the protagonist of the novel and Céline’s alter-ego, turns up to stay with Cascade. It’s revealed later in the novel that Cascade Farcy is an uncle of Raoul, someone with whom Ferdinand had made friends whilst convalescing from their war injuries; they had intended to visit London together but Raoul was court-martialled and executed for his self-inflicted wounds. Cascade, however, urged Ferdinand to come anyway.

Ferdinand encounters many strange characters and gets tugged along by events—he’s rarely the instigator of any action, he mostly just reacts to the actions of others. There are some amusingly scurrilous episodes such as a fight between two of Cascade’s prostitutes resulting in one of them, Joconde, being stabbed in the buttocks by the other one, Angèle. They then have to get Joconde to a hospital without drawing any attention to themselves. Luckily Cascade knows a doctor, Clodovitz, who will help them out without asking questions. Later on in the novel there is another brilliant fight scene between two other characters, Claben, a pawnbroker, and Borokrom, a piano player. As with the fight between Joconde and Angèle it’s too long to quote in full but here’s a quote from the beginning of the squabble. Claben, the old guy, and Borokrom are in a room above the ground floor shop.

   “You’re already drunk, Borokrom!” the old guy answers…”You’ve been drinking like a hole!”
They’re at one another now…
“Like a hole?”…Ah! that’s the limit!…”Tell me, what kind of hole? What kind of hole? Ass-hole, is that it?”
It’s too outrageous!…Boro gets up! He wants to hear that to his face…what the old guy’s insinuating! he’s going downstairs…shit! He stumbles…he staggers…He gets to the stairs…His shirt hanging out like a smock, his belly sagging…He’s reeling again…Boom!…he tumbles, upsets…rolls down…crashes into the shop…A mess…Right into the whole works…Right into the crockery…The pyramid of fruit dishes…plates! Thunder!…A cataract!…The old boy’s choking with fury…The client in front of the counter yelps…she’s bleating with horror…She wants to run away…she can’t!…Everything falls all over her!…The old guy tries to help her, to pull her out! he yanks at her, by the shoes…he takes a firm stand…ho! hip! hup!…the whole works tumbles down again!…

The fight only ends with the arrival of Claben’s maid, Delphine, who prevents Borokrom from bashing his brains out. Borokrom retreats to the room upstairs and plays ‘The Merry Widow Waltz’ upon request from Claben, who is addicted to music. If this all sounds chaotic and confusing then you will need to prepare yourself for another episode later on, another bust-up, after Delphine comes home with some ‘strange’ cigarettes. It is even more bizarre and results in the death of one of the characters. Ferdinand escapes but is framed by the others for the murder. He evades the police and encounters an even odder character, called Sosthène, a charlatan; he’s French but when Ferdinand first encounters him he is dressed as a Chinaman; one of his job descriptions on his business card is Explorer of Occult Hearths. Still, he is ready to employ Ferdinand who is just thankful to be off the streets.

The book ends in medias res but it continues with the second volume, London Bridge (Le Pont de Londres) which was published in 1964 but not translated into English until 1995. I had read Guignol’s Band at least twice before but still enjoyed it as much this time around. I have only read London Bridge once so I am considering reading this again soon. It’s about twice as long as Part I and continues Ferdinand’s adventures through the dirty streets of war-time London.

This was read as part of Karen’s and Simon’s The 1944 Club.

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‘Sentimental Education’ by Gustave Flaubert

Sentimental Education (L’Éducation sentimentale), published in 1869, was Flaubert’s third novel and is possibly his most autobiographical work in that it covers the life of someone of similar age and background as Flaubert himself. He had already written an unpublished novel with that name in 1845 and decided to return to the subject matter in 1863—I’m not sure if the early version has ever been published, in either French or English. The story’s main focus is on the early adult life of Frédéric Moreau in the years leading up to the 1848 revolution and more specifically Frédéric’s unconsummated love affair, or infatuation, with the older Mme (Marie) Arnoux, which is based on Flaubert’s own infatuation with an older married woman, Élisa Schlesinger.

The novel begins with Frédéric returning home by boat to Nogent-sur-Seine from his schooling in Paris. Two months hence he will return to Paris to begin his legal studies at university. On board the boat he strikes up a conversation with an older man, Jacques Arnoux, who runs an art journal/shop in Paris. After taking leave of M. Arnoux he comes across a beautiful woman who turns out to be Mme Arnoux.

    What he then saw was like an apparition:
    She was seated in the middle of a bench all alone, or, at any rate, he could see no one, dazzled as he was by this vision. At the moment when he was passing, she raised her head; his shoulders bent involuntarily; and, when he had placed himself some distance away, on the same side, he looked at her.
    She wore a wide straw hat with pink ribbons which fluttered in the wind, behind her. On either side, her black hair traced the curve of her large eyebrows, descended very low, and seemed amorously to press the oval of her face. Her robe of light muslin spotted with tiny dots spread out in numerous folds. She was in the act of embroidering something; and her straight nose, her chin, her entire person was cut out on the background of the blue sky.
[…]
    Never had he seen such lustrous dark skin, such a seductive figure, or such delicately shaped fingers as those through which the sunlight gleamed. He stared with amazement at her work-basket, as if it were something extraordinary. What was her name, her place of residence, her life, her past? He longed to become familiar with the furniture of her apartment, all the dresses that she had worn, the peope whom she visited; and the desire of physical possession itself yielded to a deeper yearning, a painful curiosity that knew no bounds.

When Frédéric quickly reacts to prevent Mme Arnoux’s shawl from falling into the sea, she thanks him before she’s whisked away by M. Arnoux. Frédéric is completely smitten.

When Frédéric is back in Paris studying he meets someone who works for M. Arnoux and manages to become an acquaintance of Arnoux’s with the goal of meeting Mme Arnoux. Frédéric discovers that although M. Arnoux has many mistresses Mme Arnoux has no lovers. Frédéric eventually gets an invitation to dinner from M. Arnoux where he can hopefully be introduced to Arnoux’s wife. In order to impress her Frédéric spends money on new and expensive clothes. It turns out that his longtime friend from back home, Deslauriers, plans to arrive in Paris on that same day. Frédéric is so obsessed with meeting Mme Arnoux that he abandons his friend at home without a thought. He has a wonderful time, he manages to talk briefly with Mme Arnoux, and when he returns home in the evening he is surprised to find his friend in his flat as he’d completely forgotten about him during the evening.

Flaubert introduces us to many characters—fellow students of Frédéric, acquaintances of Arnoux, Arnoux’s mistresses and friends from home. They begin to blur together a bit as the narrative flits between them quite briskly. They are all pretty much selfish, bland characters and Flaubert very rarely delves into their lives or their thoughts; instead we discover the characters only through their spoken words and their actions and we are never sure whether they are telling the truth or not. Frédéric is rather feckless, lacks any ambition or focus, is amoral, fickle and is never satisfied. Even his love for Mme Arnoux fades when she is no longer nearby, only to re-awaken when she comes to his notice again. By the end of Part One it is revealed that Frédéric has come into an inheritence, just when he was thinking that his future looked bleak. This then allows him to return to Paris to live the high-life. He squanders money but is not totally reckless with it. He lends money to friends when they ask for it and rarely gets it back. He is offered a job by the wealthy acquaintance, M. Dambreuse, but fails to take him up on it. He seems to have charm but we rarely experience it ourselves. Through the novel he gets involved with one of M. Arnoux’s mistresses, Rosanette, with whom he has a child, Louise Roque a childhood sweetheart who loves Frédéric and asks him to marry her—he equivocates despite the fact that she is attractive, wealthy and eager to marry him. By the end of the novel he has an affair with the wife of the wealthy M. Dambreuse, with whom marriage arrangements are made upon the death of her husband. But as soon as any of these other women are available to him he loses interest in them as he is still infatuated with Mme Arnoux.

I very nearly gave up on this novel early on as not only was the main character maddening but all the others were as well. Frédéric is incredibly self-centred, he lacks any depth whatsoever and yet nearly everything seems to work in his favour in the end. The only thing that Frédéric is focused on is Mme Arnoux but even that we wonder whether it’s just out of habit rather than any true feelings towards her—when he meets her years later he is shocked that her hair is grey and he instantly loses interest in her. Flaubert’s style of writing doesn’t help as at times it just seems like he’s uninterested in the characters and just seems happy to catalogue one event after another with no apparent control over it. I have been reading Frederick Brown’s biography, Flaubert: A Life, alongside my current readings of Flaubert’s works and it’s interesting to hear what Brown says about it.

The novel leads everywhere and nowhere, like a maze of paths all running into culs-de-sac.

A contemporary critic described it as a ‘compendium of descriptions’ and Henry James said: ‘the book is in a single word a dead one’. Even Flaubert himself was unsure of the book. Here’s another quote from Brown:

Flaubert’s correspondence seldom sounded a confident note about L’Éducation sentimentale during the entire four and a half years of its composition. While creating a modern antihero in Frédéric Moreau, he kept berating him for his modernity. How could so ineffectual a character captivate readers?

Although it was a bit of a struggle to read I have found that I have grown to like it more since finishing it. It’s one of those books that stays with you and besides, I keep thinking I must have missed something important, especially as many people have given it glowing reviews. Still, there were some funny and/or interesting episodes in the book; one of my favourites was a duel scene between Frédéric and a character called Marquis de Cisy. Both duellists were cocky to begin with but by the time of the duel both were wishing that it could be cancelled. The duel is abandoned when Cisy faints and grazes his thumb. Blood is drawn. Honour is saved.

My next Flaubert book was going to be Salammbô, which is set in Carthage following the First Punic War, but will now likely be a library book that collects three very early stories by him: Memoirs of a Madman, Bibliomania and November. And there’s the biography to finish as well.

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‘The Disappearance of Émile Zola’ by Michael Rosen

I haven’t posted much in the last month what with being busy at work, the World Cup occupying much of my time and the warm summer weather not being favourable for sitting at a computer screen. So blogging has taken a bit of a back-seat, but I have been reading quite a bit. One of the books I read recently was Frederick Brown’s book on the belle epoque era in French history, For the Soul of France, which has the subtitle Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus. That book covers significant events such as the rise and fall of General Boulanger, the crash of the Union Générale, the Panama Scandal and of course the Dreyfus Affair as well as others. The Dreyfus Affair becomes more fascinating the more I read of it and Brown’s book was especially useful as it helped put the events into context. I would recommend the book for anyone who would like an introduction to the period. Frederick Brown has also written a book covering the 1914-1940 period called The Embrace of Unreason, a huge biography of Zola that I have yet to read and a biography of Flaubert which I have started to read.

As I was reading For the Soul of France I spotted The Disappearance of Émile Zola by Michael Rosen in my local library and so I felt it would be a good idea to follow the Brown book with this one. It covers Zola’s period of exile in England during the Dreyfus Affair. I had previously read Ernest Vizetelly’s With Zola in England: A Story of Exile which is a great first-hand account of events by Zola’s English publisher and was published in 1899 while the Dreyfus Affair was still raging. Michael Rosen is able to add to that account by referring to Zola’s correspondence and more recent works on Zola.

On the evening of Monday, 18 July 1898, Émile Zola disappeared.

Zola had been convicted for criminal libel following the publication in January 1898 of his explosive article J’accuse. In this article Zola claimed that Dreyfus had been falsely convicted of espionage by the army, that evidence had been fabricated and kept secret from the defence, that the guilty person, Major Esterhazy, was protected by the army and that Dreyfus was convicted because of anti-Semitism in the army. All of this was true but that did not stop Zola from being prosecuted. Zola had hoped that his trial would result in a re-trial of Dreyfus but this failed as the military and judiciary closed ranks. Zola faced a year in prison but was persuaded by his lawyer to flee to England instead.

As we read this book we discover that Zola had a hard time in England. His home affairs were complicated as he shared his life with his wife of nearly thirty years, Alexandrine, and his mistress, Jeanne, with whom he had two children, Denise and Jacques. Zola could speak very little English and now, although a famous author, he found himself alone and in a foreign land having to hide away in damp, cramped houses and having to cope with English weather and food. He wasn’t totally alone of course as Vizetelly and others were there to help him find a place to stay and to direct his correspondence back home. Zola managed to stay hidden away despite attempts by the press to track him down. Amusingly Zola was spotted almost straight away by some French actresses on tour in London but luckily this didn’t get leaked to the press and he managed to remain hidden away for the whole period.

Zola wasn’t to return to France until 5th June 1899, over a year since he decided to leave France. During this year he was compelled to move house several times but he managed to continue his work on the first of his novels from the Four Gospels series, Fruitfulness (Fécondité), which was published whilst he was still in England. Zola’s Four Gospels were to concentrate on influencing French society rather than just documenting it. Strangely, Zola seems to be more positive than ever before. Here he is recorded by a reporter as saying:

Ah! how this crisis has done me good! How it’s made me forget the self-glorifying vanity to which I—like many others—become attached! And how it’s opened up my life, along with problems and profundities that I didn’t ever suspect! I want to devote all my efforts to the liberation of man. I wish that we could all put ourselves up for the test that our group of humanity might come out of this being braver and more fraternal…

Once he’d moved out of London both Alexandrine and Jeanne were able to visit Zola during this period, albeit at separate times. As he became more settled he was able to enjoy his new passions of cycling and photography and included in this book are several of Zola’s photographs of England and of his visiting family. Rosen’s book also includes many extracts from Zola’s correspondence with Alexandrine, Jeanne and his children. These letters help us to understand his unorthodox homelife and how he tried to please everyone. Alexandrine must have found the situation very difficult but she and Zola were still in love and she continued to adminster his affairs in Paris. Zola’s letters to Alexandrine and Jeanne show that he cared for them both.

This is a very interesting book for the Zola enthusiast and even if you’ve read Vizetelly’s book you will find it fascinating to read. It also includes the short story that Zola wrote whilst in England called Angeline or The Haunted House which is a sort of ‘non-ghost story’ and the text of J’accuse is reproduced in full. I suppose the only criticism is that the Dreyfus Affair is only explained very briefly so it would be best to read up beforehand on the scandal that instigated the events laid out in this book.

This was cross-posted on The Books of Émile Zola

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Filed under Non-fiction, Rosen, Michael