Category Archives: Fiction

‘Love’ by Hanne Ørstavik

Love by Hanne Ørstavik was published by Archipelago Books this year and was originally published in Norwegian in 1997 as Kjærlighet. It was translated by Martin Aitken. As far as I know it is only the second book by Ørstavik to be translated into English; the first was The Blue Room which I read last year. Hopefully more of her books will be published in the future.

Love follows the nocturnal wanderings of mother and son, Vibeke and Jon, over one night in their lives. Vibeke is a single mother who has recently moved to town with her eight year old son, Jon. Vibeke works as an Arts and Culture Officer in a local authority and she likes reading, getting through at least three books a week. The whole book is told from both Vibeke’s and Jon’s perspective, flitting back and forth, so that we get to experience their thoughts and actions concurrently. Ørstavik is not using this technique to trip the reader up as it’s clear in the text whenever the switch between the two characters is made from the context of the story. It’s an highly effective technique.

The story begins with Vibeke returning from work on the eve of Jon’s ninth birthday. Here’s an example of Jon’s thoughts as he waits for his mother to return from work:

The sound of the car. When he’s waiting he can never quite recall it. I’ve forgotten, he tells himself. But then it comes back to him, often in pauses between the waiting, after he’s stopped thinking about it. And then she comes, and he recognizes the sound in an instant; he hears it with his tummy, it’s my tummy that remembers the sound, not me, he thinks to himself. And no sooner has he heard the car than he sees it too, from the corner of the window, her blue car coming round the bend behind the banks of snow, and she turns in at the house and drives up the little slope to the front door.

We realise early on that Jon is used to being by himself, he’s introspective and has an active imagination and curiosity about the world around him. Jon also has trouble with blinking as his eye muscles start to spasm at random moments. It’s difficult not to feel some affection for the boy.

When Vibeke returns she is thinking of her new job and getting a meal ready for the two of them. Even when they’re eating there is little interaction between themselves, they seem to be quite isolated in their thoughts. Jon thinks of school, the neighbours, his birthday the following day whilst Vibeke thinks of work, clothes she wants to buy and books she’s reading. Even when she does show some attention to her son she is soon sidetracked by thoughts of herself.

   She reaches out and smoothes her hand over his head.
   “Have you made any friends yet?”
   His hair is fine and soft.
   “Jon,” she says. “Dearest Jon.”
   She repeats the movement while studying her hand. Her nail polish is pale and sandy with just a hint of pink. She likes to be discreet at work. She remembers the new set that must still be in her bag, plum, or was it wine; a dark, sensual lipstick and nail polish the same shade. To go with a dark, brown-eyed man, she thinks with a little smile.

Throughout the night covered by the novel Vibeke rarely thinks of her son and she has totally forgotten that it is his birthday the following day so it would have been easy for Ørstavik to make her into some kind of monster; but she doesn’t, Vibeke is certainly self-obsessed to some degree but she comes across as quite a naive, innocent, woman who just wants good things to happen to herself and her son.

The bulk of the novel takes place once Jon leaves the house, he has some raffle tickets for a sports club that he wants to sell to some of the neighbours. He leaves the house and soon after Vibeke leaves intending to return some books to the library, however she is unaware that Jon is no longer in the house. First off Jon knocks on the door of an old man who lives opposite him. He is invited in, the man offers to buy all the tickets then thinks of something and invites Jon down to the cellar. At this point we, the reader, are picturing that all sorts of horrible things will happen, especially when Jon notices, quite innocently, a dog collar and chain hanging from a hook in the ceiling. Ørstavik plays brilliantly with the readers’ expectations throughout the novel as Jon meanders about. He starts talking with a girl who invites him back to her house. Jon stays there after she goes to bed and her parents appear quietly menacing to us, but not to Jon. Later on he gets into a car with a woman, who Jon suspects may really be a man, whose intentions towards Jon are unclear. We fear for Jon who seems oblivious to any danger. The driver appears to know who Jon’s mother is, which is another source of concern for the reader.

Meanwhile Vibeke, finding the library shut, ends up at a fairground where she chats to one of the fairground men, called Tom, and goes back to his caravan. As with Jon we begin to wonder what will happen to Vibeke. Although she has only just met the man, she seems to be imagining them living together whilst his interest in her seems to be waning already. When they go out to find a bar or nightclub he appears to us to be almost absent, more interested in chatting up other women than Vibeke, whilst Vibeke sees little wrong with this. At one point in the novel Vibeke, in a car driven by Tom, passes by the parked car that contains Jon and the woman. At ths point the reader is fearing what will happen to both characters.

Love is an excellent book, easily comparable with the equally excellent The Blue Room. I love the way that Ørstavik plays with the expectations of the reader by placing the characters in potentially dangerous situations and throwing us false clues, or rather, clues which would be significant in a thriller of horror book but which are insignificant here. But Love is mostly about the two characters Vibeke and Jon. Both come across as innocent, introspective people but basically decent, though Vibeke is quite self-obsessed and thoughtless, illustrated by her forgetting her son’s birthday. Whether she should be vilified as a bad mother or bad person because of that is left for us to decide. The ending was suitably ambiguous though we are thrown enough clues for us to guess what happened or could have happened. The problem is, given our experience with the rest of the book, should we trust our own thoughts based on these clues?

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‘The Immoralist’ by André Gide

The Immoralist was originally published in 1902 in French as L’Immoraliste; this translation, by Dorothy Bussy (née Strachey), was first published in 1930. It begins with a preface by the author then a fictional letter to the Prime Minister explaining that the following text is what the main character, Michel, told them after asking them to visit him in a little village somewhere in Algeria. The rest of the novel is Michel’s story.

Since last seeing his friends Michel explains that he had married Marceline, even though he hadn’t particularly loved her, in order to please his father who lay on his deathbed. The thought of marriage had not previously entered his head as he had been occupied with his work on ancient cultures. On their wedding day Michel and Marceline embark on their travels, first to Paris and then on to North Africa. Whilst travelling Michel begins to pay a little attention to his new wife and realises that she is in fact very pretty, something he had never noticed before even though they had grown up together. It is only now that he really considers his recent marriage and what it means to him.

So the being to whom I had attached my life had a real and individual life of her own! The importance of this thought woke me up several times during the night; several times I sat up in my berth in order to look at Marceline, my wife, asleep in the berth below.

In Tunis Michel develops a cough and feels tired but they head further south until they get to Biskra. He starts to cough up blood and initially tries to hide it from his wife but she soon realises that he has tuberculosis and she looks after him during his illness. As a distraction Marceline brings Bachir, an Arab boy, in to Michel’s room; Michel soon starts to look forward to Bachir’s visits and develops a definite desire to live.

And suddenly I was seized with a desire, a craving, something more furious and more imperious than I had ever felt before—to live! I want to live! I will live. I clenched my teeth, my hands, concentrated my whole being in this wild, grief-stricken endeavour towards existence.

With Marceline’s help and his own renewed will to live Michel recovers from his illness. He finds the presence of children both in the street and at home a great help as he enjoys watching their healthy bodies. There is one incident when he witnesses, via a reflection, one of the boys, Moktir, steal a small pair of scissors behind his back. Michel says nothing and, curiously, Moktir then becomes his favourite. Later on in the novel Michel is made aware, from the enigmatic character Ménalque, that Moktir knew that Michel saw him.

Once Michel’s health has returned they return to France via Italy. Michel returns to work and decides to spend his time between Paris and an estate he inherited in Normandy called La Morinière. Whilst at La Morinière Michel learns about the state of the tenants and the land from Bocage who has been looking after the estate during the abscence of the landowner. Michel becomes irritated with Bocage’s old-fashioned ways and becomes besotted with Bocage’s young son, Charles: ‘…a fine strong young fellow, so exuberantly healthy, so lissom, so well-made…‘ Charles has ideas to shake up the running of the farms and Michel helps him implement some of these ideas. Michel is uneasy being a landowner and tries to ingratiate himself with the tenants and local populace but under the influence of Charles he evicts two farmers for no real reason. There is also an episode whereby Michel encourages another boy, Alcide, who is also Bocage’s son, to poach from his own land while at the same time encouraging Bocage to catch the poachers. Michel seems to just be playing at being a landowner, he doesn’t seem to want the responsibility of owning land and instead makes an ass of himself.

In the third part of the book events mirror the first part in that they leave Paris to travel to North Africa via Italy but this time Marceline falls ill. Michel looks after Marceline but he keeps them moving on until they finally reach Biskra and the conclusion of the book.

I have missed quite a lot out of this review. In fact, it is amazing just how much is packed in to such a small book. Both the setting and style is similar to Albert Camus and so it is no surprise to discover that Camus was influenced by Gide’s work. The story and style also made me think of Paul Bowles’s work such as The Sheltering Sky et al. Michel’s illness makes him re-evaluate his life and to take control of it but he soon falters as his freedom brings confusion. Near the end of the book he tells his friends:

What frightens me, I admit, is that I am still very young. It seems to me sometimes that my real life has not begun. Take me away from here and give me some reason for living. I have none left. I have freed myself. That may be. But what does it signify? This objectless liberty is a burden to me.

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‘The Boarding-House’ by William Trevor

After reading my first book by William Trevor last year (Children of Dynmouth) I have decided to read a few more of his books this year, especially as a few of them are available at my local library. The one that really appealed to me was this one, The Boarding-House, which was first published in 1965. The blurb on the back of the new Penguin edition states: William Wagner Bird filled his boarding-house with people whom society would never miss—if it had ever noticed them at all. Now, doesn’t that just grab your attention?

The novel begins with the landlord of the London boarding-house, Mr Bird, on his death-bed. He is being attended to by one of his tenants, Nurse Clock. Mr Bird had spent the last few decades populating his house with tenants that were lonely lost-souls with neither friends nor family. The house itself had been spared the troubles of decorating or refurbishing for the whole time that Mr Bird had owned the building. It was out-of-date and a little worse for wear just like its owner and tenants.

It turns out that Mr Bird made a study of his tenants; not only did he specifically choose them but he also wrote notes on each one in a notebook titled Notes on Residents. In this book Mr Bird writes:

Well, at least I have done a good thing—I have brought them all together; and though they are solitary spirits, they have seen in my boarding-house that there are others who have been plucked from the same bush. This, I maintain, lends them some trifling solace.

It would seem that Mr Bird’s intentions are purely altruistic and recognising that he is in a position to help others, who are similar in many ways to himself, he does so by allowing them to live their lives as free from outside interference as is possible. But, as the novel progresses, it is not so clear that this was Mr Bird’s intentions at all.

There are many characters in this hugely entertaining novel. We get to know them as Trevor skillfully flits between characters, moving from the present, to the past, and back again, sometimes entering their thoughts, sometimes their dreams or from direct quotes from Mr Bird’s Notes. The novel includes other characters besides the tenants, such as the cook and the maid as well as those that the tenants come into contact with. It would take too long to introduce them all but I will give a quick outline of some of the major participants. Mr Studdy is a petty thief who loves causing mayhem; Mr Bird writes ‘Anyone can see that poor old Studdy never had a friend in his life.’ And of Nurse Clock he says ‘Nurse Clock has morbid interests. She is a woman I would fear were it not for my superior position.’ Venables was the first of Mr Bird’s ‘solitary spirits’, he is a weak, lonely man who suffers from stomach cramps. He arrived after fleeing from a girl he made pregnant and fears that her parents are still seeking him. Miss Clerricot blushes at everything and is extremely self-conscious about her face; Mr Bird finds her ‘adorable’. Major Eele is full of bluster and visits strip clubs but is rather naive; he married a few years before but it only lasted days. Mr Obd came from Africa to study law but didn’t graduate; too embarrassed to return home he works as a clerk; he is deeply in love with a girl called Annabel Tonks but his love is unreciprocated. Mr Scribbin likes listening to records of trains at a thunderous volume. Rose Cave was brought up by her mother after a fling with the wallpaper man; Mr Bird notes that she cries out at night.

It is soon announced that Mr Bird, having no kin of his own, has left the house to two of the residents, Nurse Clock and Mr Studdy, but with the proviso that no changes should be made to the house and that none of the tenants should be made to leave. Just prior to the reading of the will we have witnessesed Studdy trying to wheedle a drink for nothing out of a barman at his local pub, con an old bedridden woman out of some money and write an anonymous blackmail letter to the meals-on-wheels lady. It turns out that Nurse Clock likes caring for old people, especially when they’re over ninety, but it becomes clear that it’s the power that she can exert over them that appeals to her. In short, Studdy is a petty thief and swindler whilst Nurse Clock is a bully. As the novel continues Nurse Clock decides that she wants to turn the house into a nursing home for the elderly and Studdy goes along with her plans, especially as it involves more disruption and chaos but they are a totally incompatible couple; Clock just wants to boss everyone about and is frustrated when others have ideas of their own whilst Studdy has no intention to help her with her plans, instead he has to fight the overwhelming urge to stick a pin into her arm.

So, given that Mr Bird knew about these characteristics, as is apparent from his Notes on Residents, why did he leave the house to these two people? Was it his intention to cause chaos amongst his residents after his death? Or was he just naive? Trevor hints of possible malice in Mr Bird’s decisions:

When Mr Bird had written his will and had read it over he became aware that he was laughing. He heard the sound for some time, a minute or a minute and a quarter, and then he recognized its source and wondered why he was laughing like that, such a quiet, slurping sound, like the lapping of water.

But Trevor points out that Mr Bird had similarly smiled whilst writing about his residents but had murmured an apology when he had realised he was being mean, which isn’t really the action of a malicious person.

This is a brilliant book, full of grotesque but strangely likeable characters, by which I mean likeable as characters in a novel, they’d be a right pain in real life. The novel reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont but surpassed even that superb book in my opinion. I am certainly attracted to books set within a closed environment such as hotel, boarding-house, ship etc. especially if there are many characters. Trevor’s Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel looks quite similar and may well be my next book by the author.

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‘Cold Hand in Mine’ by Robert Aickman

Robert Aickman was a British writer of horror stories or ‘strange tales’ as he preferred to call them. I had only previously read his other collection of stories, Dark Entries (1964), which I had enjoyed, so I was looking forward to reading this collection from 1975. Aickman’s stories take place in the real, everyday world which is familiar to all of us. His tales usually take place in modern towns and cities, very often during the daytime as well and only rarely relies on the supernatural. Instead Aickman finds the horror or strangeness inherent in our lives and plays with it, distorting the world around us ever so slightly to reveal the weirdness within. In this way his stories remind me of Shirley Jackson’s stories with the only difference being that Aickman is very British and Jackson is very American. Aickman’s style may annoy some readers, I guess; his writing style is quite stuffy and old-fashioned, though for me this adds a certain unreality to the stories; the main characters do have a uniformity about them as if they’re all just versions of Aickman himself and they have a general awkwardness about them which can sometimes be annoying as they’ll do or say something, or not, that will exasperate the reader; the endings can be vague and sometimes the stories end quite abruptly, leaving the reader to decide what happened. None of this is meant to put you off reading his stories, but rather to prepare you for what to expect. It makes the experience even more unsettling and eerie and usually adds to the effect of the story, only occasionally did I feel that he got it wrong.

Cold Hand in Mine contains eight stories with each story typically between twenty to forty pages long. I’m not going to cover each one but will instead just give a flavour of one or two of them. The first story in the collection is called The Swords and is a great start to the book. It is told in the first person by what could be considered a typical Aickman character; a youngish man, rather naive, at least as far as women go, and a bit of a loner. Here he introduces himself:

I was a beginner all right; raw as a spring onion. What’s more, I was a real mother’s boy: scared stiff of life, and crass ignorant. Not that I want to sound disrespectful to my old mother. She’s as good as they come, and still hit it off better with her than most other females.

His father died when he was young and his uncle taught him how to be a grocery salesman which involves a lot of travelling around and staying in cheap hotels often populated with the seedier elements of society. One time whilst visiting Wolverhampton he finds himself in such a hotel where in the evenings there is little to do except wander around the city. He ends up in a rundown area where he comes across a rather forlorn looking fair which has only a few customers. He ends up going into a grimy tent with the sign ‘The Swords’ over the entrance; inside the show has started, with a man giving his spiel whilst an attractive woman lays sprawled across a chair in a bored manner. The audience consists solely of men and on the stage is a pile of forty or so dingy looking swords. Having missed the beginning of the performance the narrator doesn’t know what to expect but the man on the stage wants to know who is to ‘go first’. He has to cajole the audience but eventually someone steps up. The man is told to pick up a sword and urged to stick it into the girl.

   And then it happened, this extraordinary thing.
   The volunteer seemed to me to tremble for a moment, and then plunged the sword right into the girl on the chair. As he was standing between me and her, I could not see where the sword entered, but I could see that the man seemed to press it right in, because almost the whole length of it seemed to disappear.

When the sword is pulled out there is no blood and the woman is otherwise not affected. After kissing the woman, which was part of the price of the ticket, the next customer has a go. Scared, the narrator leaves before it is his turn. The next day he is drawn back to the fair and ends up meeting the circus man and the girl in a nearby café, they recognise the narrator and the circus man offers a ‘private show’, at a price, which the narrator accepts. When she turns up later that evening at his hotel events take a rather strange turn.

Other stories have more familiar horror topics such as a (possibly) haunted house in The Real Road to the Church; in The Hospice a traveller gets lost taking a short cut home and ends up at a very strange house/hotel where the customers seem to be permanent, but not necessarily voluntary, residents. It’s very creepy, especially when he has to spend the night there and he has to share a room with one of the residents. The story, Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal, is quite different than the others in that it’s told via diary entries, the main character is female, it’s set at the beginning of the nineteenth century and it involves vampires, albeit in a very understated way; it’s a great story and it won an award when it was first published in 1975.

Possibly my favourite story is Meeting Mr Millar in which the narrator, a young writer living in rather shabby third-floor flat in London, experiences the neighbours from, well, Hell. The second floor is taken over by what appears to be an accountancy firm, ‘Stallabrass, Hoskins and Cramp’, but seems to be run by the elusive Mr Millar. Very little work seems to get done by the firm and there is an endless parade of visitors and/or employees both during the day and night. Aickman lets the story snowball beautifully with events becoming increasingly strange. Aickman even gives us a clear, unambiguous, and even happy ending.

The last story, The Clock Watcher, was an enjoyable tale about a newly married man and wife and her obsession with collecting clocks.

Most of Aickman’s books were published between the 1960s and 1980s. He was never a hugely popular author but his books have been kept in print in recent years largely by Tartarus Press and Faber & Faber. The recent edition by Faber & Faber of Cold Hand in Mine includes an introduction by Reece Sheersmith from the dark comedy team The League of Gentlemen and an interesting biographical afterword by Jean Richardson, a friend of Aickman’s.

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‘Night Games’ by Arthur Schnitzler (GLM)

Night Games is the first story in the collection Night Games and Other Stories and Novellas. The collection was published in 2002 by Ivan R. Dee and was translated by Margret Schaefer. The short story was originally published in 1926 as Spiel im Morgengrauen. It begins with Lieutenant Wilhelm Kasda being awoken one Sunday morning by his orderly to announce that Wilhelm (or Willi as he is known throughout the story) has a visitor. His visitor is an old acquaintance, Otto von Bogner, a man who had once been an officer as well but who had to resign after running up some debts at a casino that he couldn’t honour. Von Bogner now works as a cashier in the office of an electrical installation company and has ‘borrowed’ some money from the company only to discover that on Monday the office is due to be audited by the company headquarters; he needs some money fast, about a thousand gulden. But Willi is living in straitened circumstances and only has about a hundred gulden himself. Bogner suggests that Willa approach his uncle Robert but he dismisses the idea as he no longer has any contact with him. Bogner suggests some other people that Willa could approach but he is uneasy about asking anyone for money. Instead he suggests that as he was intending to visit Baden that evening to indulge in a game of baccarat that he would use his hundred gulden to see if he could win the money for his old friend. Meanwhile Bogner still has a few gulden of his own and he intends to go to the races to see if he can win the money himself.

Well, I guess we half-know how the story is going to proceed from this point; Willa arrives at Baden and although he feels like being distracted by the Kessner sisters he ends up at the gaming table. He’s cautious at first and then becomes bolder. Before long he has a thousand gulden and exits from the table with the intention of visiting the Kressners for dinner only to discover that they have left already. He’s now at a loose end.

The Kessners might have left word for him with the housemaid! Well, he had no intention of forcing himself on them. He really didn’t need to do that. But what to do? Return to Vienna right away? That would perhaps be best. How would it be just to leave the decision to fate?

Willa goes for a walk in the evening air, but as we suspected he finds himself drawn back to the café and the gaming table. And he loses his money, right? Well, yes and no, he wins, then has a losing streak, then a winning streak, so that when he is due to catch the last train back to Vienna he has over two thousand gulden in his pocket.

Although there is a certain inevitability about the story, Schnitzler has a lot of fun playing with us; we’re expecting things to go badly but things keep turning out fine for Willa. This story reminded me of one of my favourite short stories, stickman’s laughter by Nelson Algren. In both stories the protagonist is initially reluctant to gamble their money, they’re cautious but end up with sizeable winnings, they walk away with the knowledge that they could end the evening in the black; but circumstances draw them back, they don’t want to, but fate seems to draw them back to the table, their winnings increase but as the evening proceeds they get sucked in so that they can no longer escape.

Willi is lent the use of a coach so that he can get to the railway station.

Still, the horses maintained a good clip, and in five minutes they were at the station. But at precisely the same moment the train, which had arrived just a minute earlier, began to move from the gate in the station above. Willi leaped from the carriage, started after the brightly lit coaches as they moved slowly and heavily forward across the viaduct, heard the whistle of the locomotive fade into the night air, shook his head, and didn’t quite know whether he was angry or pleased.

Oh well, back to the baccarat table.

I won’t divulge any more of the story—at this point we’re about a third of the way through it. Although it’s a bit predictable at times I found that Schnitzler took us to places we weren’t expecting. In the end it’s a fun story, rather in the style of Maupassant, and one well worth reading. I shall look forward to the rest of the stories in this collection, although some I have read previously.

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‘Caspar Hauser: Inertia of the Heart (Part One) by Jakob Wassermann (GLM)

I first heard of Caspar Hauser from the 1974 Werner Herzog film, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, which I probably first watched in the early 1990s. I would imagine that for many of us this was our first encounter with the story. Jakob Wasserman’s novel, Caspar Hauser: Inertia of the Heart, which was first published in 1908, did a similar job as the Herzog film in popularising the story of Caspar, which is based on real events. It’s worth checking out the Wikipedia page if you are interested in discovering the historical facts of the case. I always find it difficult with fictionalised versions of real events because it’s always tempting to check the fiction against the historical events, which I have done whilst reading this novel, but with this review I will try to stick to what is solely contained within the novel. I shall also use the spelling used within the novel, i.e. ‘Caspar’ rather than the more commonly used ‘Kaspar’ but I shall avoid using the spelling of ‘Nürnberg’ for ‘Nuremberg’ that is used in the book except when I’m quoting from the book. The edition I am reading was published in 2012 by Floris Books and is a reprint of a translation by Caroline Newton from 1928.

The story begins with a description of Caspar, a seventeen year-old boy, entering Nuremberg on foot one day in May 1928; he can barely talk and barely walk and seems to be surprised even by the movement of his own body. He has with him a letter bearing the address of Cavalry Captain Wessenig. He is taken to the police office where he is unable to answer any questions but is just able to scrawl his name on a piece of paper. He refuses all food except bread and water. Although he is dressed like a peasant it is noted that he has a fine white skin and looks ‘more like a young lady of aristocratic birth than a peasant.’ A doctor examines Caspar and also notes the lack of callouses on his feet.

“One thing is evident,” his testimony concludes, “we are dealing with a person who has no conception of his fellow men, does not eat, does not drink, does not feel, does not speak like others, does not know anything of yesterday or to-morrow, does not grasp time, does not know he is alive.”

The story of the boy attracts a lot of attention from the populace who wish to see this curiosity; some believe him to be a wild man reared by wolves whilst others believe that he’s deceiving them. The unsigned letter that Caspar had on him was apparently written by his guardian who claims to have taken in him as a baby in 1815—his mother is unknown. He claims to have kept Caspar hidden away indoors so that no-one in the village knew of his existence and that he brought Caspar to Nuremberg in the night. Caspar knows neither the name of his guardian nor the name of the village whence he came. He says that ‘if you don’t want to keep him you will have to kill him and hang him up the chimney.’

The local teacher, Professor Daumer, becomes increasingly interested in Caspar and he tries to help him learn to talk. Surprisingly Caspar is quick to learn and he eventually tells Daumer what he can of his life so far.

So far as Caspar could remember he had always been in the same dark space, never anywhere else, always in the same space. Never had he seen a man, never had he heard his step, never had he heard his voice, never the song of a bird, never the cry of an animal; he had never seen the rays of the sun, nor the gleam of moonlight. He had never been aware of anything except himself, and yet he had known nothing of himself, never becoming conscious of loneliness.

In the mornings he had had fresh bread and a pitcher of water by his bed. On occasions the water tasted strange and caused him to fall asleep, when he awoke he would find his hair cut, his nails clipped and fresh straw on his bed. He had a wooden horse as his only toy. One day a man entered his room and for three days taught Caspar how to write his name. On subsequent nights the man led Caspar outside and taught him how to walk and then one night the man led him to Nuremberg and handed Caspar a note.

As the story of Caspar becomes known more widely it is not long before stories emerge of him being of noble blood, that he was kept in a dungeon to keep him out of the way so that an illegitimate heir could claim Caspar’s rightful place. Before long Caspar is moved from his cell to live with Professor Daumer but is ultimately under the protection of von Feuerbach, the president of the court of appeals. And so Caspar begins to learn about the world; the sun is especially fascinating to him, at one point he asks Daumer ‘is the sun God?’

But Daumer is in a bit of a quandary as he sees Caspar as an innocent and regrets that he has the task of exposing him to the cruel world. Daumer has to protect Caspar from the talk about his supposed noble lineage or the other claims of him being a swindler and yet at the same time he is compelled to parade him in front of his guests. During this period characteristics of Caspar’s personality emerge that will persist throughout the novel: he is fascinated with learning the identity of his mother, he is accused of lying by others, he refuses to let others read his diary. These all seem quite natural, especially as everyone seems to feel that they have a claim on him, that Caspar is there for their benefit and that he has no right to a personal life; his lying, his ‘secrecy’ just seem to me to be attempts to get away from this public life that everyone is intent on inflicting on him.

Events take a more sinister turn when one day he is attacked. In the garden one day he hears a voice from behind him say ‘Caspar, you must die’ and he is struck on the forehead with a knife. He made his way into the house and is later found in the cellar bleeding. Caspar recovers and it is during this period that an English lord first appears on the scene making enquiries about Caspar and offering a reward for anyone with information of Caspar’s attacker. Daumer, by this point, has become weary of looking after Caspar and it is agreed that he will go to live with the Beholds. Frau Behold is particularly obnoxious and domineering, Herr Behold is mostly absent. She bosses Caspar about and is only interested in him as a toy doll to parade around with at gatherings. She discourages his studies and teases him when he shows compassion towards slaughtered animals.

No, Caspar did not feel in the least at home. Frau Behold was utterly incomprehensible to him; her glance, her speech, her manner, all repelled him greatly. It cost him much thought and artifice not to show his dislike, although he was sick and miserable when he had spent only an hour in her company.

Relations deteriorate quickly between Caspar and Frau Behold. One morning he wakes to discover his caged blackbird dead on the dressing-table with its heart next to it on a plate. Caspar moves in with Herr von Tucher after Frau Behold locks Caspar out of her house.

At 467 pages this is quite a long novel, and as I have had to spend quite a while on the preliminary events I shall cover the rest of the novel in a second post.

The novel, so far, gives a pretty straightforward account of events, we could almost say that it’s Caspar’s version. But later on we get to see glimpses of others’ views and opinions.

Have you read the Wassermann novel? or seen the Herzog film?

I am reading this as part of German Literature Month VII.

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Filed under Fiction, Wassermann, Jakob

‘Demian’ by Hermann Hesse (GLM VII)

Demian was first published in 1919. My Picador edition made use of a translation from 1958 by W. J. Strachan. Demian was originally published under the pseudonym, Emil Sinclair, who is the narrator of the story. The narrator begins the story by describing ‘two worlds’, the first is the comfortable, clean, friendly world of his parents’ house and the other world is, well, basically the world outside of the first world, which is noisy, scary, violent and chaotic but also exciting, fun and lively. At the beginning of the story Emil is ten years old and he describes an event that has repercussions throughout the whole narrative. Emil gets to know an older, burly, rough boy called Franz Kromer who likes to boss and bully the younger boys. One day the boys sit around telling stories of their misdeeds in order to impress Kromer and each other. Emil can’t think of any bad things that he’s done so he makes up an incident where he stole some apples from a garden. Kromer suspects that Emil is lying but starts to blackmail him threatening to tell the owner of the apple tree if Emil doesn’t pay him two marks. Emil’s life becomes miserable as he ends up stealing small amounts from his parents in order to pay Kromer.

And then along comes a new boy, Max Demian, who saves Emil from Kromer’s bullying. How he actually gets Kromer to stop is never made explicit but Demian seems to Emil and the other boys to possess hidden powers over other people. A year or two pass and then Emil begins to encounter Demian more frequently. One time Emil sees Demian in a street crowd surrounding a dead horse and gets to observe him closely.

I saw Demian’s face and remarked that it was not a boy’s face but a man’s and then I saw, or rather became aware, that it was not really the face of a man either; it had something different about it, almost a feminine element. And for the time being his face seemed neither masculine nor childish, neither old nor young but a hundred years old, almost timeless and bearing the mark of other periods of history than our own.[…]Perhaps he was handsome, perhaps I found him attractive, perhaps he repelled me too, I could not even be sure of that. All I saw was that he was different from the rest of us, that he was like an animal, a spirit or an image. I cannot describe him except to say that he was different, unimaginably different from the rest of us.

Emil and Demian soon become close friends. Demian seems to have powers over other people, he seems to be able to bend them to his will, which impresses Emil. Demian believes that we should not just honour the ‘good’ things ascribed to God but we should also honour the ‘bad’ things ascribed to the Devil; this line of thinking is in tune with Emil’s thinking of the ‘two worlds’.

Emil ends up going to another school and is separated from Demian. At this school he ends up drinking a lot and leading a dissolute life for a while. This period comes to an end when he becomes obsessed with a woman called Beatrice. Rather than try to meet her he takes up painting in order to paint her portrait, but the portrait, Emil realises, actually resembles Demian. Emil meets Demian during this period and after a chat Demian says, enigmatically:

It is good to know that we have within us one who knows everything about us, wills everything, does everything better than we can ourselves.

The novel begins to take on a more spiritual tone at this point as Emil embarks on a spiritual journey to ‘find himself’. In his studies he comes across the god Abraxas, the god who was both God and Devil. He meets a new friend, Pistorius, an organist who also knows about Abraxas and who reminds Emil of Demian. Pistorius helps Emil to discover more about himself and his own life.

And at this point I felt the truth burning within me like a sharp flame, that there was some rôle for everybody but it was not one which he himself could choose, re-cast and regulate to his own liking. One had no right to want new gods, no right at all to want to give the world anything of that sort! There was but one duty for a grown man; it was to seek the way to himself, to become resolute within, to grope his way forward wherever that might lead him. The discovery shook me profoundly; it was the fruit of this experience.

Emil then goes to university and once again comes across Demian and also gets to meet Demian’s mother, Frau Eva, who is even more enigmatic than her son and whom Emil, of course, falls in love with. But as Emil’s spiritual journey continues the world is hurtling towards a world war.

Hesse tells a fascinating story, his style is compelling and although I cannot really identify with the spiritual, metaphysical nature of Emil’s journey it is an interesting journey to follow.

This post was my contribution to the German Literature Month challenge.

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Filed under Fiction, Hesse, Hermann