Tag Archives: German Literature Month

‘Bloody Wedding in Kyiv’ by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (GLM X)

Bloody Wedding in Kyiv is based on a real person and real events, Olga, or Olha, of Kiev (b.890?-925?, d.969) though what is actually real is not known as it has been embellished in its re-telling over the centuries. Sacher-Masoch was obviously attracted to the tale of a beautiful, cruel, imperious woman exacting revenge on her husband’s murderers. I’m not going to concern myself with what is, or isn’t, true, or with any inaccuracies in the story but just concentrate on the story as a work of fiction.

Image source: publisher’s website

This edition actually comprises of two stories by two authors: Bloody Wedding of Kyiv (1866) by Sacher-Masoch and Kniahynia’s Comb(2015) by Petro Haivoronskyi. The full title is Bloody Wedding of Kyiv: Two Tales of Olha, Kniahynia of Kyivan Rus and was published by Sova Books in 2016. The translator is Svitlana Chornomorets and the beautiful cover is by Nikola Nevenov. The book also contains some illustrations of the events from The Radziwiłł Chronicle.

The story begins with Kniaz Ihor (or Igor of Kiev) having his chess game interrupted by the arrival of some diplomats from Derevlia. Ihor reluctantly agrees to see them. Their leader, Mak, asks Ihor to remove the levies that he has placed on the Derevlians claiming that they are crushing his people but Ihor, who doesn’t believe that they can’t pay him, refuses to retract the levy and threatens to collect it himself. His beautiful wife, whom Mak is besotted by, says that they shouldn’t be let off so slightly but should be tortured instead.

So Ihor goes to collect his tribute from the Derevlians. They meet and escort him to their capital, Iskorosten where he will be based. His soldiers meet resistance when they try to collect the tribute and it erupts into an uprising. This infuriates Ihor even more and when he personally goes out to assist he is confronted and killed by Maz. Ihor is buried outside Iskorosten and his troops return to Kyiv.

The Derevlians decide that it would be advantageous if Mak were to marry Olha which would bring Kyiv under their control. Also Mak is attracted to Olha. So Mak sends some diplomats by ship to Kyiv to offer Olha his hand in marriage. Olha tricks them and has them captured then they are buried alive, together with their ship, in a huge pit that has been dug. Another group of Derevlian diplomats, who are unaware of the fate of the first group, are burnt alive in a bathhouse, much to Olha’s delight. Olha then goes to meet Mak, ostensibly to marry him, but in fact to get revenge; she agrees to the marriage but it must be in Kyiv. When Olha is told that Mak is handsome she replies:

“He is handsome and noble,” added the Kniahynia, reflecting, “but his hands are awash with blood. The blood of my master, my husband – and a warrior demands revenge! I could love him, if I did not have to hate him with all my heart.”

So Mak arrives in Kyiv, prepared for marriage but curious as to what happened to his diplomats. There is a big feast and the Derevlians get drunk. When Mak approaches Olha in the wedding chamber she attacks him and with help from her guards they bind him. Meanwhile most of the Derevlians are massacred but for those that were involved in the murder of Ihor ‘inhumane tortures’ are invented. Limbs are chopped off, some are burnt alive, some buried alive.

Olha then takes up arms and completely subjugates Podillia, the land of the Derevlians. Villages are burnt and people massacred. On her return she decides on Mak’s cruel punishment.

And the cruel woman ordered that the Derevlian Kniaz’s arms and legs be severed. For the rest of his life he was to stay under her table and gather the breadcrumbs with his tongue.

Olha rules on behalf of her son, Sviatoslav, until he is old enough to rule himself. Olha is christened in 955.

The Kniahynia’s Comb by Petro Haivoronskyi is also based on Olha. In present day Ukraine some archaelogists discover a coffin from the tenth century which still contains a corpse. In the coffin there is a silver comb which has two names inscribed on it: ‘Prekrasa’ and ‘Vedmid’. ‘Pekrasa’ was Olha’s original name and ‘Vedmid’ was an early admirer of her. The story tells how Vedmid sacrificed his life to save Olha from assassination. The discovered comb appears to have some healing properties.

Bloody Wedding in Kyiv was read as part of ‘German Literature Month 10’.

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‘Love. The Legacy of Cain’ by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (GLM X)

The Legacy of Cain (Das Vermächtnis Kains) is an unfinished cycle of stories/novellas which was to be split into six volumes of six stories, with each concentrating on a specific theme. Only the first two volumes were completed: ‘Love’ and ‘Property’. ‘Love’ also contained a prologue, called The Wanderer (Der Wanderer). The prologue and the first three stories from the original volume are included in this Ariadne Press edition of Love. The Legacy of Cain from 2003; the other stories are Don Juan of Kolomea (Don Juan von Kolomea), The Man Who re-enlisted (Der Kapitulent) and Moonlight (Mondnacht). The original volume, Love (Liebe) was published in 1870, though some of the stories had already been published separately. The original version also included Sacher-Masoch’s most famous work, Venus in Furs (Venus im Pelz) and two other stories that aren’t included in this translated edition: Plato’s Love (Die Liebe des Plato) and Marcella (Marzella oder das Märchen vom Glück). This translation was by Michael T. O’Pecko.

The first story in this collection is the shortest, The Wanderer, being the prologue in the original version. In this story Sacher-Masoch sets out his plan for the whole cycle of stories by having the narrator, whilst out shooting in the forest with a companion, meet a religious wanderering ascetic who sees everything about modern life to be evil; he describes himself as ‘fleeing from life’ and in his long monologue he explains that he is looking forward to death and that he must die as he has lived, ‘in flight’, as we are all descendants of Cain and that ‘existence is a kind of penance’. Whilst his hunting companion has departed, the narrator is intrigued with what the wanderer has to say. The wanderer sums up his monologue with the six ‘evils’ of life, which then become the themes of the six volumes of Sacher-Masoch’s books.

“And these six things: love, property, the state, war, work, and death, are the legacy of Cain, who slew his brother and whose brother’s blood cried out to heaven, and the Lord spake to Cain: ‘You shall be cursed upon the earth and a fugitive and a vagabond.'”

As with all the stories in this collection Don Juan of Kolomea is set in Galicia (in present day Ukraine) and begins with a frame story. It begins with some travellers being waylaid in a tavern whilst they’re waiting for their papers to be checked. I found this story rather humorous and contains one of my favourite passages from the whole book.

I was soon bored, for my friend Moschku had his hands full with serving his guests with brandy and gossip, and only seldom did he hop over the bar to my table, sink his verbal claws into me, and attempt a learned conversation about politics and literature.
I was bored even without that and looked around the room.
Its basic color was green.
The frugally trimmed petroleum lamp filled the room with greenish light. Green mold lay on the walls, the great rectangular oven was lacquered green, and green moss grew out of Israel’s fieldstone floor. Green sediment in the schnaps glasses, green oxidation on the small tin measuring glasses that the peasants drank out of when they walked up and put their copper coins down on the bar. A green vegetation covered the cheese that Moschku placed in front of me, and his wife was sitting behind the oven in a yellow nightgown with bluish green flowers and rocking her pale green child. Green in the Jew’s careworn face, green around his small, restless eyes, around his thin, motionless nostrils, and in the mockingly twisted, sour corners of his mouth.

When a man enters and starts talking to the bartender’s wife, the bartender, Moschku, pulls her away from him and calls him a ‘dangerous man’. When this man ends up telling the narrator his story we expect, given the title of the story and the man’s apparent reputation, to hear a story of his love conquests, but instead we hear about his married life. It’s an amusing tale of how he was ignorant of women as a young man but fell in love with Nikolaya Senkov, whom he describes as ‘walking like a princess’. So, they fall in love, marry and are happy – for a while. The story, as told by Demetrius, or ‘Don Juan’, is in his own colloquial style as he chats with the narrator and sometimes teases him, sometimes berates him. Things start to go wrong with the marriage when they have children; when the narrator says ‘Usually a child is seen as a pledge of love’ this really tickles Demetrius and he henceforth refers to his children as his ‘pledges of love’. They now argue, grow apart, Nikolaya flirts with other men and Demetrius fools around with peasant girls. Demetrius is getting drunker as he tells his tale but by the end he claims that he and his wife get on ok now, then he departs to go visit his current lover.

The second story, The Man Who Re-enlisted begins with some poetically descriptive passages of nature and another traveller who meets up with a band of soldiers, one of whom tells us his story. This story is different than the first and told in a more straightforward style but we get comments from some of the other soldiers, who are all interested in the love story. It concerns Frinko Balaban, the ‘re-enlsited man’, and Katharina; they fell deeply in love when they were young but as both were peasants there was little chance of advancement in life, except Katharina is beautiful and catches the eye of the young master of the estate. Katharina readily ditches Balaban to marry the master and so become mistress of the estate. Balaban ends up joining the army and re-enlisting to stay away from Katharina but ends up returning to his home village after his parents die. Balaban never marries as he’s still in love with Katharina. The men talk about what Katharina did and they can all see, including Balaban, why she married the count, as Balaban explains:

“But a smart woman isn’t satisfied with a bag of money. She drags the man off to a priest.
“Do you understand me? That’s why there is such a great enmity among women, just like there is among tailors or basket-weavers. Every one of them is trying to sell her little basket as best she can. And is she wrong to do so?
“Isn’t the woman judged by who her husband is? Once a girl from the village marries a count, she’s a countess, isn’t she? Her husband’s honored position is hers, and that’s why a woman is always prouder of his titles and his wealth than the man is himself. You understand?”

And Balaban goes on to justify this mercantile nature of love, to the bemusement of the more Romantically-inclined narrator:

“A man’s love soon comes to an end, and I say that women are right to look to their interests while they can, as long as they’re young and pretty, and as long as the man’s head is on fire; a fire like that is soon extinguished, and a little woman soon becomes old.”

But we see in Moonlight, the last story, what may happen to a woman who marries for money and titles. There is rather an unusual frame story to this one in that a traveller is told a story, whilst lodging for the night, by the mistress of the house after she sleepwalks into his room at night. Olga tells the traveller, Leopold, the story of her life. Olga, a beautiful child, is destined for a ‘good’ marriage and she is brought up by her parents with the intention of marrying her off to a ‘good’ family. Mihael, an estate-owner, is attracted by her and they soon marry; Olga is whisked off to Mihael’s estate where she is soon bored with having nothing else to occupy her except her children. Her husband’s time is taken up with managing the estate and his involvement in local politics. Olga ends up falling in love with Mihael’s rather self-important friend, Vladimir, which lasts for a year before Mihael finds out and kills him in a duel. Olga and Mihael then stay together in a loveless marriage. This is almost an archetypical nineteenth century story about marriage but it’s interesting that Sacher-Masoch makes all the characters in the story believeable and even likeable; no-one is a demon, each person’s actions is understandable, instead it is the social structure of the standard marriage that, Sacher-Masoch seems to imply, is at fault.

Before reading Love I also read The Master Masochist, which is a 1968 collection of stories, each concentrating on tales of cruel, evil, domineering women, which is, of course what the author is most famous for, through the novel Venus in Furs. It’s a curious collection of tales, and I suspect the stories have been heavily edited to pick out the more salacious parts of his stories. There is a story called Girls Who Whip Men and the last story, The Female Hyena of the Hungarian Plain, has the ‘Hyena’ having a man whipped and tortured so that he bleeds upon the woman so that she can bathe in his blood. All the women wear furs and love whipping men in these stories, though they usually get their comeuppance in the end. Although in Love the women occasionally don furs and show a cruel smile, it’s all in the ‘background’, whereas the stories in The Master Masochist read more like nineteenth century soft porn—I’m intrigued just how much was altered or cut in these translations. Still, I enjoyed them in a way, they weren’t very ‘literary’ but it was interesting to see Sacher-Masoch play out his fantasies in other stories.

‘Love’ was read as part of ‘German Literature Month 10’.

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‘When the Time Comes’ by Josef Winkler (GLM X)

In the clay vessel where the putrid-smelling bone stock was rendered from the bones of slaughtered animals, to be painted on the horses with a black crow’s feather around the eyes & nostrils and on the belly, to protect them from the mosquitoes and horseflies…

In the clay vessel the bones of nearly everyone who dies in this novel is laid down, one on top of another, layer upon layer and rendered down to a bone-stock, a greasy, viscous liquid called a ‘pandapigl’, in the dialect of Carinthia. At the very bottom of the clay vessel lay the arm bones of a man who had his arms torn from his body during WWII. This man had, before the war, carried a life-sized statue of Jesus and, for some reason, thrown it over a waterfall; the statue had later been reclaimed by the local pastor, Balthasar Kranabeter, except for the arms. The man’s loss of his arms was seen as a just punishment for his wicked act. This man is also portrayed in a large painting, painted by the pastor, framed with fire and in which the sinner is entwined by a large snake whilst Satan pours a cup of gall down his throat. This painting is on the side of a calvary and can be viewed by the inhabitants of the town as a reminder of what awaits the blasphemer.

Image from publisher’s website

The novel begins with an event from WWII and ends with other grisly WWII scenes, such as a soldier whose body is torn in two and the top half of his body is dumped on the top of a dung heap, much to the amusement of his comrades. However, this novel is not about WWII particularly, and although it takes place in an Austrian town, or village, it is not really about that village, but is about death. This plotless novel is a non-chronological catalogue, a necrology, of the many deaths of the inhabitants of the village. Very often a character is introduced with the nature of his or her death. It is confusing at first as we are introduced to many characters, not all of them named, in fact some are just described as Maximilian’s grandmother, Maximilian’s uncle and so on, so we try to work out who’s who in relation to Maximilian, even though initially we know little about Maximilian himself.

The narrative can be confusing but Winkler’s use of repetition is often helpful in aiding our understanding. Sometimes the narrative switches from person to person but it is usually clear(ish) as long as the reader pays attention. I was never quite sure whether Maximilian alone was the ‘bone collector’ or his father, or both; maybe a second reading would be beneficial. Maximilian’s father is repeatedly introduced as ‘the ninety-year old man with the gray-flecked moustache and the trimmed eyebrows’ and it is not until later in the novel that we actually discover that he is called Oswald Kirchheimer—strangely, once we discover his name he becomes a more real person rather than the rather nebulous man with a ‘gray-flecked moustache’, even though we have already heard stories of his childhood, such as how he lost a finger and how he fell from a hayloft, and how he had his face pushed into some excrement by a butcher, who also liked to urinate into his sausage meat.

So many characters, so many deaths—there are deaths from heart-attacks, cancer, pneumonia, traffic accidents, fires etc., but most of all there are suicides. From the beginning we learn of the suicides of Max’s great grandmother and great-grandfather; there is also the suicide of Ludmilla Felfernig, who is taunted by some boys when she has her period and in shame, I guess, she drowns herself in the river. There is a spate of suicides in a family where three brothers end up killing themselves on separate occasions. The suicide of one of these boys, Leopold Hasslacher, is a double suicide with his friend Jonathan Steinhart, which takes up a significant portion of the book. What follows is Winkler’s description of the suicide; there is no explanation of why they did it, all we get is a description of the events. Jonathan and Leopold were seventeen year-old lovers who decided, though we do not know why, to die together.

After Jonathan, wearing only his pajamas, jumped out of his bedroom window in the middle of the night & met with Leopold, who awaited him in the garden, the two went to the stable and put a three-meter-long hemp rope in a bricklayer’s bag splattered with quicklime. On a September night, under the light of the moon, they walked with the rope up the village street, passing the calvary, not noticing the devil’s red wings, which were stretched to the point of tearing—Lucifer was sweating blood—and then up the hill of the parish house into the barn. In the empty barn full of dusty cobwebs—the parish house was unoccupied at the time—they climbed a wooden ladder to the crossbeam. The two boys tied the two ends of rope behind their ears and jumped into the emptiness, weeping and embracing, a few meters from the armless Christ who had once been rescued from a stream bed by the priest and painter of prayer cards and who now stood in the entranceway of the parish house, gasping and smelling the blood sweated out by the devil in the calvary. With their tongues out, their sexes stiff, their semen-flecked pants dripping urine, Jonathan in pajamas and Leopold in his quicklime-splattered bricklayer’s clothes, they hung in the barn of the parish house until they were found by Jonathan’s sixteen-year-old cousin, who shined the beam of his flashlight across their four dangling legs twenty-four hours later, and were cut down with a butcher’s knife by Adam the Third.

The two suicides are afterwards described by the villagers as ‘those two idiots who did away with themselves together’, but Katharina Steinhart, Jonathan’s mother, is particularly haunted by the suicide of her son. From her bedroom window she could look out over the cemetery and, with the aid of some binoculars, see her son’s grave, and dream of his resurrection and return to the family home. She is to die fifteen years later of breast cancer and is buried alongside her son.

With Katharina’s reaction to her son’s death Winkler allows a little bit of sentiment to creep into his book. That most of the book is devoid of it makes it even more effective when it does appear. The overriding effect of the novel is the inevitability of death; but do we need to be reminded of it? Maybe. Maybe we do. And did I say that Winkler has a beautiful prose style?

Two years ago I reviewed Josef Winkler’s Natura Morta for GLM VIII.

When the Time Comes was originally published as Wenn es soweit ist in 1998. This translation, by Adrian West, was first published by Contra Mundum Press in 2013.

When the Time Comes was my first contribution to 2020’s German Literature Month.

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‘Witiko’ (Book Three) by Adalbert Stifter (GLM IX)

And so, on we go with Book Three of Stifter’s Witiko. Book Two ended with Witiko preparing, over the winter months, for the coming war in the spring. Book Three begins after the recent battle at Mt. Branis in which Prince Wratislaw’s troops have been repelled by Witiko’s forces. Over the next few days Witiko’s forces meet up with Wladislaw(W)’s forces, as well as receiving reinforcements from elsewhere. Witiko renews his oath to Wladislaw(W)’s cause.

   “Witiko,” the duke said, “give me your hand.”
   Witiko extended his hand to the duke; the latter took it and said, “As I press your hand, I am and hope to remain always your friend. Be devoted to me throughout the coming years, if I deserve it.”
   “Your Grace,” Witiko replied, “I came to you because I considered you the rightful duke; I gladly served you because you are are a good duke, and I have grown to love you because you are a just man.”

It is not long before both sides are ready to go to battle again.

Desolation, destruction, annihilation was the order of the day between two peoples who should have been living in harmony under the same ruler.

Wladislaw(W) is, once again, triumphant as the city of Znaim surrenders. They bury the dead and tend to the wounded of both sides. Wladislaw(W) tries to avoid committing any atrocities against the enemy, especially as this is a civil war and he sees both sides as his people. Within a few months all of Moravia is back under Wladislaw(W)’s control.

So, job done! Witiko returns home and visits the construction site of Heinrich’s castle (Heinrich is Witiko’s father-in-law-to-be). Witiko goes aroaming again and brings his mother and family to his home in Pric. Once he has confirmation that he has been enfeoffed with the regions promised to him he begins to construct his own castle, starting with the well. Now he is a lord and will soon own a castle he feels he can formally ask for Bertha’s hand in marriage; so off he goes to see Heinrich. This all takes quite a while, of course, as there are a lot of formal procedures to get through. Bertha, unsurprisingly, agrees to the marriage and they go off for a walk to the stone seats in the meadow where they first met.

   “Here is the spot,” Bertha said.
   “You stood here with the roses,” Witiko said.
   “And you stood over there with the sun shining on the rocks, and then you walked toward me,” Bertha said.
   “I was startled when I saw you wearing the forest roses,” Witiko said, “because in my country they are often revered.”
   “It was fate to take the roses on that day, and we must honor them,” Bertha said.
   “We must honor them,” Witiko replied, “and they will always be a symbol for me.”

But the warring is not quite over. Wladislaw(S) and his supporters make an appeal to Duke Wladislaw(W) that he, Wladislaw(S), should rightfully be the Duke of Bohemia and Moravia, thereby re-hashing the initial succession debate that was voted on and then fought over. After listening to the appeals Wladislaw(W) unsurprisingly rejects them. However, he does not punish them but allows them to retain their lands. There is peace for a while but more trouble is brewing.

Before the leaves of the birches turned yellow and the beeches’ leaves red, the building with its scaffolding rose like a tremendous four cornered tower above the forest visible from far away.

Meanwhile, Witiko’s castle is completed and his marriage to Bertha can proceed. There is a lavish celebration beginning with a ‘courting procession’. There is much feasting and many gifts are exchanged.

   After twelve days of festivities, Witiko’s friends and other guests departed with wishes for his happiness and praises of Bertha and the forest.
   When all were gone, Witiko stood with Bertha on the southern balcony pointing out the meadows and mountains he had told her of on the stones of the lonely meadow near her father’s forest home.

In the new year there is an uprising of princes in Moravia including Konrad von Znaim, Wratislaw and also Wladislaw(W)’s own brother Diepold, who had helped with Wladislaw(W)’s defence of Prague. Events begin to be a bit rushed now in Stifter’s narrative. Konrad von Znaim and Wratislaw are excommunicated, Diepold repents. Wladislaw(W) goes on a crusade (Second Crusade of 1146) but Witiko doesn’t. The narrative turns to Friedrich, Holy Roman Emperor, who is about to embark on an Italian campaign against Milan, which has revolted against his rule. In order to enlist Wladislaw(W)’s help he crowns him as King of Bohemia and Moravia. There are many that object to this but Wladislaw(W) gets his way; I guess it solves the succession problem. They go off to lay siege on Milan and eventually succeed and return triumphant.

So, after nearly 600 pages, or 300,000 words, of Stifter’s Witiko was it really worth reading? The short answer is ‘no’. Its style is so stilted and stylised that it is quite boring to read. Stifter’s other novel, Indian Summer, is similar, but there was a pay off, I felt, as in that novel the descriptions of the houses and landscape were often beautiful, the conversations about art and science were at least interesting and there were different characters, even if they were all of the same type. But in Witiko the prose is flat, almost dead, there are no discernible characters as everyone is the same and all conversations are formal and stiff. The conversation between Witiko and Bertha quote above is about as free as it gets. There are no thoughts, banter, sex, ribaldry, passion, personal opinions or humour…definitely no humour. Presumably the topic itself would be a bit of a problem for many historical novelists but most would, I believe, try to inject some humanity and passion into the narrative; Stifter tries, and succeeds, in sucking out anything of the like so that we are just left with this dried-up husk of a novel—an anti-Romantic historical novel.

I am intrigued enough, though, to wonder what Stifter’s motives were for writing this book, especially as it seems so different from his other novellas, most of which are set in contemporary Germany/Austria. Witiko was originally published as three separate books between 1865 and 1867. As the Prussian-dominated unification of Germany happened in 1871 maybe Stifter was concerned that Bohemia would be incorporated into this united Germany, even though it was still part of the Austrian Empire. Or maybe Stifter was anticipating the break-up of the Austrian Empire and the possibility of an independent state for Bohemia and Moravia—maybe he was trying to supply it with some historical gravitas: See how we ruled by ourselves in the past. My knowledge of this period is too patchy to make any further comments but it would be interesting to read more. Unfortunately I know of no biographies of Stifter available in English and although there are some critical studies of his work available in English they are all pretty expensive. One that I would like to read is Adalbert Stifter And The Idyll: A Study Of Witiko by Barbara S. Grossmann Stone and published by Peter Lang.

This was read as part of German Literature Month IX.

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‘Crowds and Power’ by Elias Canetti (GLM IX)

Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power is a book I first read many years ago and one that I had intended to re-read for quite a few years now. With my reading of Stifter’s Witiko taking place only at the weekends I thought Crowds and Power would be a great book to read during the weekday commute; it’s non-fiction, which I sometimes find easier to read on a crowded bus, and it’s split into small chapters. Given that I’d considered Crowds and Power to be a favourite of mine when I first read it, I was surprised to find I was less enamoured with it second time around. Still, its positives outweigh its negatives and I would still recommend it to anyone at all interested in the subject.

Crowds and Power was first published as Masse und Macht in 1960 and was translated into English by Carol Stewart in 1962. It was the first significant work published by Canetti since his novel Auto da Fe in 1935. Canetti settled in England in 1938 but I don’t know when he started to work on Crowds and Power. Given the period in which he was writing, with the rise of totalitarian states, we might expect Canetti to concentrate explicitly on such states but they barely get a mention. Instead Canetti takes a more literary, symbolic approach to the subject and he relies on examples from history and anthropolgy rather than more contemporary examples, presumably in order to highlight that the analysis applies to humanity in general rather than the specific cases of Nazism and Stalinism. Crowds and Power is not a textbook on crowd psychology but is more the analysis of a largely ignored topic by an intelligent man.

The book covers a lot of ground and a full review is, quite frankly, beyond my capabilities, however, I would like to give a taste of what is contained within it. Here is the first paragraph:

There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching towards him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it. Man always tends to avoid physical contact with anything strange. In the dark, the fear of an unexpected touch can mount to panic. Even clothes give insufficient security: it is easy to tear them and pierce through to the naked, smooth, defenceless flesh of the victim.

Canetti introduces us to the different types of crowds, including some that we might not have even thought of as a crowd, such as the dead. Other adjectives used to describe different types of crowds are: open, closed, stagnating, rhythmic, slow, invisible, baiting, flight, prohibition, reversal, feast. Canetti introduces the concept of a ‘crowd crystal’ which serves to precipitate crowds. He also makes use of ‘crowd symbols’ throughout the book as well as ‘national crowd symbols’. At one point Canetti declares that money is a crowd symbol and that inflation is a crowd phenomenon.

What is it that happens in an inflation? The unit of money suddenly loses its identity. The crowd it is part of starts growing and, the larger it becomes, the smaller becomes the worth of each unit. The millions one always wanted are suddenly there in one’s hand, but they are no longer millions in fact, but only in name.

It is in this section that Canetti makes one of his rare comments about Hitler and the Nazis. Canetti compares the depreciation of the German mark during the Weimar Republic with the ‘depreciation’ of the Jews under the Nazis.

The world is still horrified and shaken by the fact that the Germans could go so far; that they either participated in a crime of such magnitude, or connived at it, or ignored it. It might not have been possible to get them to do so if, a few years before, they had not been through an inflation during which the mark fell to a billionth of its former value. It was this inflation, as a crowd experience, which they shifted on to the Jews.

Canetti now shifts his attention to power, beginning with the brilliantly titled chapter, ‘The Entrails of Power’ which includes one of my favourite sections of the book, ‘On the Psychology of Eating’. Canetti draws the connection between eating and power and makes the point that the man who can eat the most is a ‘champion’ and in older socities a potential leader. Here is a great quote on eating in general; Canetti is very much thinking of meat-eaters here.

People sit together, bare their teeth and eat and, even in this critical moment, feel no desire to eat each other. They respect themselves for this, and respect their companions for an abstemiousness equal to their own.

In this section Canetti also makes this comment on laughter and power.

A human being who falls down reminds us of an animal we might have hunted and brought down ourselves. Every sudden fall which arouses laughter does so because it suggests helplessness and reminds us that the fallen can, if we want, be treated as prey. If we went further and actually ate it, we would not laugh. We laugh instead of eating it. Laughter is our physical reaction to the escape of potential food.

In the chapter, ‘The Survivor’, Canetti connects power with survival, but where the ordinary individual wishes to survive, Canetti points out that to be the lone survivor is the real goal of all leaders and the final claim to power; and to be the lone survivor one needs to kill others. He makes the following blunt statement:

It is those who devote themselves to killing who have power.

He then goes on to make the following case.

The deception is complete. It is the deception of all leaders. They pretend that they will be the first to die, but, in reality, they send their people to death, so that they themselves may stay alive longer. The trick is always the same. The leader wants to survive, for with each survival he grows stronger. If he has enemies, so much the better; he survives them. If not, he has his own people. In any event he uses both, whether successively or together. Enemies he can use openly; that is why he has enemies. His own people must be used secretly.

Canetti uses examples of tyrants and despots throughout history, some are well-known, whereas others virtually unknown. But it is unclear sometimes whether he is making the claim that all leaders, even those of democracies, suffer from the same delusions. Given the times that he had lived through maybe he was sceptical of democracies surviving. Maybe Canetti felt that this ‘natural’ grab for power would always come to the fore. His summary is certainly pessimistic as the ‘survivor’ now has access to the nuclear bomb which he can use in an instant. He may be able to survive but for how long?

Power is greater than it has ever been, but also more precarious. Today either everyone will survive or no one.

This was read as part of German Literature Month IX.

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‘Witiko’ (Book Two) by Adalbert Stifter (GLM IX)

The first book of Witiko ended with Wladislaw(W), together with Witiko, retreating to Prague after the inconclusive battle at Mt. Wysoka. Wladislaw(W) allows free passage to those that do not want to fight alongside him, but those that stay must prepare for a siege and a battle. Wladislaw(W) holds counsel with those that decide to stay. Stifter seems to enjoy writing these formal meetings where important decisions are made as several have appeared in the book so far; he loves the formal structure of them, I feel, and he portrays them being held in a controlled manner—I’m convinced they would be more raucous than he portrays. After giving a summary of his leadership and his aims for the battle, Wladislaw(W) decides to visit King Konrad in Germany to ask for assistance in the coming siege. He is reluctant to call on outside help but feels it is necessary. Witiko is to accompany him on this misssion, whilst the defence of Prague is passed to Wladislaw(W)’s brother, Diepold.

It is not long after Wladislaw(W)’s departure before the enemy troops arrive headed by Konrad von Znaim. The siege begins but Diepold organises some attacks on enemy troops beyond the city. They know the local terrain better than the enemy and in one midnight attack they hope to draw the enemy into some marshland.

After some time they found three men standing in the grass. The men were surprised and taken along as prisoners. Soon they reached some campfires and the challenge came: “Konrad!”
They charged the enemy shouting “Wladislaw!”
The guards posted there were slain as were others nearby. They advanced to some tents, slaying or dispersing all who emerged or leaped up from the ground. Screams spread through the camp. Diepold forbade his men to set anything ablaze so they wouldn’t be illuminated by the glare. The numbers fleeing increased; whenever a group resisted, many were slain, others pushed back. Diepold was always hot on their heels, slashing with his sword. No space was permitted to arise between the pursued and the pursuers. Diepold charged into the enemy’s confusion like an ocean wave raging against the sandy shore, sweeping everything before it.

Diepold and his men manage to return to the city. The enemy soon start to attack the city with catapults, burning arrows, and other flammable materials whilst Diepold attempts more nightime attacks on the enemy. Here is another quote of the fighting during a raid.

They fought man to man with their swords, even their sword grips; they thrust, stabbed, hacked, striking at limbs and bodies with axes, clubs, spears, and poles. The shadow of death descended on many eyes; its darkness overtook many who would never again see father, mother, sisters and neighbours, while others sank down in the hurly-burly with shattered limbs or other severe wounds.

Meanwhile Wladislaw(W) entreats Konrad of Germany for help. Stifter gets another chance to describe all the formal conversations that this involves, the arguments and counter-arguments, but in the end Konrad agrees to help. Diepold manages to withstand the siege and on the arrival of Wladisalw(W) and Konrad of Germany the enemy armies disperse so that no further fighting is required…for now.

Before he can return home there is a small matter of a trial for Witiko; earlier on he had let some enemy troops escape when out scouting; he is not found guilty of treason but he did transgress military law. He gets a small fine and a slap on the wrist. Witiko then returns to Plan. At home he embarks on loads of visits to all the people we met in Book One. There is also a romantic interlude where he proposes to Bertha, whom he also first met in Book One, and they kiss. But Witiko has to prove himself as a worthy man first, by fighting in the battle expected the following year. Much of the rest of Book Two is taken up with Witiko’s wanderings; he leaves Heinrich’s house, he is ambushed, he accompanies Bishop Zdik to the city of Passau, he travels down the Danube to Vienna where he meets his mother, who is a guest of the Margrave of Austria. Witiko returns to Plan and through the winter months he prepares an army in order to be ready for battle in the spring.

Stifter’s style can sometimes be maddening; we get no psychological insight to any of the characters, not even Witiko, but we also have no idea, when he goes wandering, where he is heading to, or why. Sometimes an explanation, of sorts, comes after the events. Also, the conversations are all so stilted, or if we wish to be kinder we may say they’re stylised. In the formal assemblies and counsels this may be understandable but all of the characters speak like it all of the time. What follows is an example of his prose and dialogue. Stifter certainly captures the pedantic, boring language that was, most probably, used in a medieval courtroom. Many such sections of text are contained in Witiko, so if you’re tempted to read the book it would be useful to see if you can cope with this without falling asleep. I must admit I found it quite amusing.

Gervasius rose from his seat, and the duke resumed his.
From his chair he said, “Say the words I gave you to tell Konrad, Duke of Znaim and of the Premysl Line.”
Gervasius spoke, “You said: Konrad, lay down your weapons, submit to Duke Wladislaw, son of Wladislaw, ask for pardon for your guilt and you shall continue unmolested as a legitimate branch of the sacred Premysl Line.”
“Who heard those words you have spoken?” Wladislaw asked.
“The men you gave me as an escort, Zwest, Wecel, Zdelaw, Bohuslaw, and Casta heard the words I have spoken,” Gervasius said.
“Those men should speak,” Wladislaw commanded.
“I heard his words,” Zwest attested.
“I heard his words,” Wecel added.
“I heard his words,” Zdeslaw said.
“I heard his words,” Bohuslaw spoke.
“I heard his words,” Casta spoke.
“What words did Konrad, Duke of Znaim reply?” Wladislaw asked.
“Konrad, Duke of Znaim, replied,” Gervasius said, “I have been elected as the legitimate Duke of Bohemia and Moravia by the high nobles of these lands and must carry out my office. I shan’t submit to being slain, blinded or imprisoned in some castle by Wladislaw.”
“Do the other men also attest that Konrad, Duke of Znaim, said these words?” Duke Wladislaw asked.
“He said them,” Zwest attested.
“He said them,” Wecel added.
“He said them,” Zdeslaw said.
“He said them,” Bohuslaw spoke.
“He said them,” Casta spoke.
“Chancellor Bartholomaeus, write these words on the parchment,” Wladislaw ordered.
There was silence for a while.
“Have you written these words?” Wladislaw asked
“I have written them,” Bartholomeaus replied.

So, Book Three to go. I’m expecting more fighting, more wandering, more scintillating dialogue and maybe a wedding.

This was read as part of German Literature Month IX.

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‘Witiko’ (Book One) by Adalbert Stifter (GLM IX)

Witiko was originally published in three volumes between 1865 and 1867. The three-volume edition I am reading was translated by Wendell Frye in 2006 and was published by Peter Lang. Each book is about two hundred pages long; but it’s a large format book so it’s probably more like three hundred pages of a normal-sized book. It’s so big that I decided just to read it at the weekends so I don’t have to carry it to and from work on my daily commute. I’m hoping to get all three books read during this month, which is of course, German Literature Month.

Witiko is an historical novel that takes place in 12th century Bohemia and concerns a succession struggle that took place involving Witiko of Prčice. Although Stifter studied and lived in Austria for much of his life he was born in Oberplan (now Horní Planá), Bohemia which is in present day Czech Republic but was, in Stifter’s time, part of the Austrian Empire, then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Having read several of Stifter’s books I was attracted to this massive novel but I had reservations, after all, I know next to nothing about the history of Bohemia in the middle ages. But, so far, this has not caused any major issues as the story seems pretty much self-contained. The occasional reference to an historical atlas or Wikipedia is all that is required as extra reading.

The story begins with a description of the landscape around the city of Passau and then we are introduced to a lone traveller who is making his way in this landscape. The year is 1138, Sobeslaw I is the duke of Bohemia and the traveller turns out to be Witiko.

The man was actually still a youth. He had a light mustache and beard encircling his chin, more yellow than brown. His cheeks were rosy, his eyes blue. You couldn’t tell the color of his hair since it was completely covered by a bowl shaped leather helmet made of such a firm solid material that even a rather strong sword’s blow couldn’t penetrate it. It rested on his head gathering all his hair inside; over his ears and toward the back was an extension to ward off a blow to the neck.

Stifter starts slowly; we are introduced to this young traveller who appears to others to be a knight though he says that he isn’t. He cares for his horse himself when staying at inns rather than have some stranger do so. On his travels he comes across a group of young men on horseback headed by a man dressed in scarlet. They mock and tease Witiko but eventually they talk. The ‘scarlet knight’ gives a long, confusing, account of all the past Polish and Bohemian kings and dukes and the wars they fought, leading up to the current duke Sobeslaw. The ‘scarlet knight’ reveals that he is Wladislaw, the nephew of the Duke Sobeslaw.

The story skips on a couple of years; it is now 1140 and Sobeslaw is gravely ill. Witiko, who is now employed by Sobeslaw, is summoned by him and given the task of finding out who the barons are intending to support as successor to Sobeslaw; there are two contenders, Wladislaw or Wladislaw. Yes, it gets tricky with the names here—there is Sobeslaw’s son Wladislaw, who I will write as Wladislaw(S), and Sobeslaw’s nephew, Wladislaw, the scarlet knight from earlier, who is the son of the Old Duke, called….you guessed it, Wladislaw. I will write the Old Duke as Wladislaw(D) and his son, Sobeslaw’s nephew, as Wladislaw(W). So Witiko travels to Prague and manages to sit in on the discussions in the Wysehrad over the succession of Sobeslaw. Stifter covers this in his slow, pedantic style, which could be quite dull, but I found it quite interesting to see how this early form of parliament dealt with such an important issue as the succession of a duke—how much of it is historically accurate is another question though. In the end Wladislaw(W) is elected to succeed Sobeslaw. On his deathbed Sobeslaw accepts the decision and asks his son, Wladislaw(S), to submit to Wladislaw(W) as he wishes to avoid a future civil war over the issue. However, after Sobeslaw’s death and the succession of Wladislaw(W), Wladislaw(S) flees Bohemia. Wladislaw(W) invites Wladislaw(S) to return, promising that no harm will be done to him or his family and that he will be ‘richly equipped and enfeoffed’.

After the death of Sobeslaw, Witiko returns to one of his mother’s farms in Plan. He helps out and then goes wandering about meeting local landowners.

He watched the villagers at their work and tried to get to know their ways: how they made their stores and divided them for consumption, how they bred their animals and made tools for the field, plows, harrows, rakes, shovels, as well as weapons, tubs, baskets and the like. He watched them making repairs and improving their houses with saws, hammers, and axes, or bringing wood to their homes by the easier method of using sleighs, or satisfying the other necessities of life in their few trades.

Because we never know what the characters are thinking we very often have to take everything at face value. These visits of Witiko’s are not random, they are planned; he is forming friendships and alliances that will be useful later on; he is networking. When a message arrives that Adelheid, Sobeslaw’s widow, has died we are unsure what to make of it; has she been murdered by Wladislaw(W)? Witiko attends a meeting of barons and is invited to further ones which he doesn’t attend. The barons are plotting against Wladislaw(W) and aim to support Wladislaw(S)’s claim to the throne.

It is now 1142 and war seems very likely. We are unsure who Witiko will support, probably because Witiko is also undecided. In the end he reasons thus: Wladislaw(W) was elected at the Wysehrad, Sobeslaw gave his approval of the decision and Witiko feels that the barons were opposed to Wladislaw(W) because of self-interest as Wladislaw(W) was helping protect the common folk against the oppression of the barons. Book One ends with a bloody battle in which Witiko and his men excel; but neither side wins, and so Wladislaw(W) decides to retreat to Prague to regroup and plan for an offensive.

This was read as part of German Literature Month IX.

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‘Waves’ by Eduard von Keyserling (GLM IX)

Waves by Eduard von Keyserling was first published as Wellen in 1911. This Dedalus Books edition was first published earlier this year and was translated from the German by Gary Miller, who also includes an informative introduction to the book. I must admit that I hadn’t heard of Keyserling until I read Tony Malone’s brilliant translation of Schwüle Tage (Sultry Days) from last year’s German Literature Month. In the introduction to the book Miller makes the point that Keyserling forms a link between nineteenth century realism and twentieth century modernism in literature; his work is sometimes described as ‘literary impressionism’. Keyserling was a rather odd-looking, sickly aristocrat from present day Latvia, whose books are largely about German aristocracy before the First World War; although limited in scope his depiction of these social elites were not uncritical.

Waves takes place in a seaside village somewhere on the Baltic Sea. We are first introduced to the elderly widow of General von Palikow, known as the Generalin, who has recently arrived at her lodgings at the Bull’s Inn. She is soon to be accompanied by a variety of family members such as her daughter Baroness von Buttlär, the Baroness’s husband and children, Lolo, Nini and Wedig. Also expected is Lolo’s fiancé, Hilmar von dem Hamm. Keyserling also intoduces us to a local privy counsellor, Knospelius, but it is the Countess Doralice’s presence in the village that arouses everyone’s interest because it is widely known that Doralice is living locally in a fisherman’s hut with an artist, Hans Grill, after running off with him, abandoning her elderly husband Count Köhne-Jasky. The thought of bumping into them is ‘very disagreeable’ to Baroness von Buttlär but the Generalin takes a more forceful attitude:

“You are the Baroness von Buttlär, are you not, and I am the widow of General von Palikow, and that means we are both fortresses, admitting no one who is not of our rank; and so we can sleep easy tonight, as if Madame Grill did not exist. We simply decree, Madame Grill does not exist.”

But this turns out not to be so easily achieved as everyone is fascinated, in one way or another with Hans and Doralice. The Baroness and Generalin initially try to keep their distance from them, but the Baroness’s children are fascinated by the couple and Lola’s fiancé, Hilmar becomes obsessed with Doralice. The Baroness remains hostile towards Doralice, seeing her as a threat to their way of life, the Generalin, however, becomes more conciliatory towards her as she realises she is not a monster.

Although we are introduced to Doralice and Hans via the gossiping of these aristocrats Keyserling soon shifts the point of view to Hans and Doralice themselves. In fact as the story progresses the aristocrat’s viewpoint fades away and we see things increasingly from Hans, Doralice and Knospelius’s viewpoint. Having run away with Hans to escape the Count’s suffocating attempts to ‘train her’ Doralice now seems to be in the process of being trapped by Hans’s plans of domestic bliss. Where the Count tried to mould Doralice into a perfect Countess, Hans now expects her to become a perfect housewife who will look after the home whilst he’s away working.

But before long the aristocrats’ paths soon cross with Doralice; Doralice helps Lolo when she swims too far out to sea. Although Frau von Buttlär is furious that Lolo has involved them with Doralice, Lolo and Nini are besotted with her and even the Generalin has a more pragmatic approach when she tells her daughter ‘She isn’t contagious — Lolo is in no immediate danger.’

When Hilmar and the Baron arrive there are more walks along the beach and more chances of meeting Doralice and Hans. Hilmar and Hans end up going on a fishing trip with the local fishermen and Knospelius hosts a party to which the aristocrats and Doralice and Hans are all invited. The party is a success. Knospelius enjoys arranging everything and commenting to the Generalin on the events as they unfold. Doralice is the queen of the ball and captivates all the men, young and old. Even the other women’s opinions of her softens.

Baron Buttlär led his wife out to dance, but only after she resisted for a moment: “But Buttlär, aren’t we the old folk?” Hilmar danced with Lolo, and Wedig, so red-faced and excited that it looked as if he were on the verge of tears, asked Doralice for a dance. Hair twirled there in the open space; red, gently trembling light penetrated through the trees and flooded over them. Behind the birches, though, something seemed to be burning, it was the sea glittering in the sunset.

In the days after the party Hans often goes to sea fishing whilst Hilmar visits Doralice to keep her company. Wedig is also found to be hanging around the Countess’s house, and Lolo too—everyone, it seems, has an interest in Doralice’s life. We sense that the novel is not going to end happily as events begin to crash in on the characters, especially Doralice. It could all become so melodramatic but Keyserling manages to steer us towards a sad, but beautiful, ending.

If you wish to read more quotes from Waves then click on the GoodReads link.

Waves was my first contribution to this year’s German Literature Month hosted by Caroline at ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Lizzy at ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’.

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‘The Nibelungenlied’ (GLM VIII)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Natura Morta’ by Josef Winkler (GLM VIII)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is my third contribution to German Literature Month VIII.

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Filed under Fiction, Winkler, Josef