Tag Archives: German Literature

‘Late Fame’ by Arthur Schnitzler

schnitzler_latefamefront2Late Fame was first published by Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) in 2014…eh…what? Yes, Late Fame is a ‘discovered’ book by Schnitzler, although even that’s complicated, I mean it was discovered but people sort of knew it existed. I’ll start again. Late Fame was completed in 1895 and submitted for publication in the periodical Die Zeit but wasn’t published due to the difficulties of serialising it. Why it wasn’t then published in another format or as a book is unclear but it was then largely forgotten about. After Schnitzler’s death and the occupation of the Nazis his archives were smuggled out of Vienna to Cambridge University by the co-operation of the British Consulate and a visiting PhD student Eric Blackall who was writing his doctorate on Adalbert Stifter. Although other works from the archives were published, Late Fame was not. If you want to know more then the afterword is very informative as well as this page on the Pushkin Press website.

I read this as part of Stu’s ‘Pushkin Press Fortnight’ at Winston’s Dad Blog.

I would like to thank Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat for sending me a copy as a giveaway prize back in November last year.

The novella begins with the elderly civil servant Herr Eduard Saxberger returning home after an uneventful day from work. Rather surprisingly he has a visitor, a young man called Wolfgang Meier, who reveals that he and his friends are huge fans of Saxberger’s book of poetry, Wanderings, written thirty years previously. Wanderings was Saxberger’s only published work and he had nearly forgotten it had existed until his visit from Meier. Meier is a writer who he belongs to a group of young artists called “Enthusiasm” and he invites Saxberger to attend one of their meetings. When he is sent Meier’s book of poetry the following day Saxberger finds it difficult reading the poetry of this young man, he just doesn’t understand it. He then refers back to his own poems and although he’s initially unfamiliar with them they soon evoke his earlier life.

So these—these were the Wanderings for which the youth of Vienna had yesterday sent him their thanks. Had he deserved them? He would not have been able to say. The whole sorry life that he had led now passed through his mind. Never had he felt so deeply that he was an old man, that not only the hopes, but also the disappointments lay far behind him. A dull hurt rose up in him. He put the book aside, he could not read on. He had the feeling that he had long since forgotten about himself.

Saxberger is introduced to Meier’s group and is treated reverently as the esteemed author of the Wanderings. Some of the artists of the “Enthusiasm” group, it is explained in the afterword, are based on real people known by Schnitzler but it is not necessary to know any details as the characters are outlined perfectly by Schnitzler. There’s Blink the cynical critic, Christian who writes historical plays, young Winder who ends up being most besotted by Saxberger and amongst others there is also the ageing actress Fräulein Gasteiner. Saxberger’s life is changed by being introduced to this group of admirers, for the first time he is treated respectfully and as a man of importance.

The group decides that they want to put on a poetry event and they want Saxberger to contribute a new poem. But this is where the problems begin because Saxberger has not written anything for over thirty years. He sits at his desk, goes for walks along the canal but he has no inspiration and instead prefers spending time with his old friends watching billiards. In the end it is agreed that Gasteiner will read a couple of his poems from Wanderings at the event. As the book proceeds we experience subtle shifts of Saxberger’s mental state and in how he fits in with this new group. As the other characters become more familiar Saxberger feels that he is respected less but reflects that this is not necessarily a bad thing as it means that he has been accepted by them.

Schnitzler handles the poetry event brilliantly; there are no major disasters but the level of public interest is pretty low. But Saxberger realises that the applause he receives is rather meaningless as the audience applauds every act. An event occurs that only he notices when he is onstage being applauded as the author of the poems:

The ovation roared around him. He felt nothing in particular, hardly even the embarrassment he had feared. He had to go up again—this time without Fräulein Gasteiner, and it was a little peculiar to him to hear the noise of clapping hands and the loud shouts of “Bravo”. He bowed several times, turned to the door and then, just as the clapping was getting weaker, he heard a voice from slightly behind him, or to the side—he couldn’t quite tell—but the words were perfectly distinct, no matter how quietly they had been said: “Poor devil!” He wanted to look around, but he felt that that would seem absurd.

Who said this and what, exactly, did they mean? Saxberger can’t understand it.

This is a brilliant little novella and it’s surprising that Schnitzler didn’t push for its publication in some form or other. I’ve already revealed too much of the story but the ending is expertly handled; in keeping with the rest of the story it’s subtle, effective and, dare I say, heartwarming.

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‘The Tongue Set Free’ by Elias Canetti

canetti_tongue-fcx-700pxThe Tongue Set Free was originally published as Die gerettete Zumge: Geschichte einer Jugend in 1977 and translated into English in 1979 by Joachim Neugroschel. It is the first of three autobiographical works by Canetti, the second being Die Fackel im Ohr published in 1980 (tr. in 1982 as The Torch in My Ear) and the third was Das Augenspiel published in 1985 (tr. in 1990 as The Play of the Eyes). I read all three books back in the early 1990s and can’t remember much about them except for young Elias talking to imaginary characters in the wallpaper (see below) in the first volume. I remember preferring The Tongue Set Free over the other volumes and in fact I sold my copies of the other volumes, keeping only this volume for a later read.

Canetti was born in Ruschuk, Bulgaria (now known as Ruse) in 1905 into a Jewish merchant family descended from Sephardim expelled from Spain in the fifteenth century. The Tongue Set Free begins in 1905 with Canetti’s earliest memory.

My earliest memory is dipped in red. I come out of a door on the arm of a maid, the floor in front of me is red, and to the left a staircase goes down, equally red. Across from us, at the same height, a door opens, and a smiling man steps forth, walking towards me in a friendly way. He steps right up close to me, halts, and says: “Show me your tongue.” I stick out my tongue, he reaches into his pocket, pulls out a jackknife, opens it, and brings the blade all the way to my tongue, he comes closer and closer, the blade will touch me any second. In the last moment, he pulls back the knife, saying: “Not today, tomorrow.” He snaps the knife shut again and puts it back in his pocket.

It turns out that the man is the maid’s lover and was trying to prevent the young Elias from blabbing their secret to others. The first part of this book, which covers these years in Ruschuk, is my favourite as Canetti describes his family and the local inhabitants. Little Elias loves the stories that the servants tell him, especially fairy stories involving wolves, werewolves and vampires. This early period consists of his wonderment at visits from gypsies, watching a man chopping wood, the births of younger siblings and the family struggles and feuds that went on, especially between his two grandfathers who hated each other. Canetti’s parents loved each other dearly and had married in opposition to their parents’ wishes. Canetti was a polyglot but he explains that that was nothing unusual in this city as nearly everyone knew several languages.

People often talked about languages; seven or eight different tongues were spoken in our city alone, everyone understood something of each language. Only the little girls, who came from villages, spoke just Bulgarian and were therefore considered stupid. Each person counted up the languages he knew; it was important to master several, knowing them could save one’s own life or the lives of other people.

Canetti tells of an incident whereby he attempts to murder an older girl, whom he had previously been besotted with, when she refuses to show him her schoolbooks which contain her writing from school—he’s five years old and he tries to kill her with an axe.

But both his parents find life in Ruschuk stifling; his mother wants to live somewhere more exciting and his father needs to escape the influence of his own father. Both have artistic interests, especially in the theatre, and they find their family’s indifference to anything other than business insufferable. And so they head to Manchester, England where Canetti’s father takes on a job in a relation’s firm. Life in England opens up a whole world of books for Elias as his father brings home book after book in English for little Elias to read. But it is rather solitary for young Elias and he is left alone for too long in the nursery.

At home in the nursery, I usually played alone. Actually, I seldom played, I spoke to the wallpaper. The many dark circles in the pattern of the wallpaper seemed like people to me. I made up stories in which they appeared, either I told them the stories or they played with me, I never got tired of the wallpaper people and I could talk to them for hours.

But he is caught talking to the wallpaper people and he has to be weaned away from these ‘unhealthy tendencies’. As the book progresses Canetti’s tendency to become obsessed over certain things arises again and again, but it is also an example of his natural ability to make up characters and to tell stories. After this incident he settles for telling stories to his younger siblings.

Tragedy strikes as his father suddenly dies. Elias had loved his father but had been rather indifferent to his mother. From now on as they move from Manchester to Vienna and then to Zurich a bond forms between Elias and his mother but it’s a relationship that is different from the loving relationship with his father. He becomes protective of his mother and jealous as well, especially when she attracts suitors such as a Viennese professor who repeatedly takes Elias’s mother out to the theatre. Elias is only happy when they finally escape from this danger by moving to Zurich. But in Zurich the Canettis have to get used to what they see as a more puritanical lifestyle, though Elias secretly prefers it to Vienna. Elias also has his first encounter with anti-Semitism at school. During this period the family begins to break apart as Elias’s mother moves to Arosa, whilst his brothers live in Lausanne; Elias stays in Zurich and continues his education. Much of the last section of the book is about his studies and his teachers, at times this part gets a little dull but Canetti doesn’t dwell on any specific too long before moving on.

The book ends in 1921 with Elias having to reluctantly leave Zurich, which he has grown to love when he’s summoned by his mother to join her in Germany. In the last chapter Canetti’s mother really lays into her son for being content and complacent living in Zurich and warns him that he’s rotting away there. She ridicules just about everything he has grown to love, these are very often things, such as an interest in the theatre and books, that she had earlier urged him to pursue. The war has changed her.

The only perfectly happy years, the paradise in Zurich, were over.

Canetti would return to live in Zurich for the last twenty years of his life.

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‘Malina’ by Ingeborg Bachmann

bachmann_malina-fcx-700pxI first read Ingeborg Bachmann for GLMIII with her short-story collection, Three Paths to the Lake, which contained a good mix of stories and was an interesting read. Since then I had been meaning to read some more, especially her only novel, Malina. Malina was published in 1971, two years before her death, and is a modernistic, experimental novel which is often compared to the novels of Virgina Woolf and Samuel Beckett et. al. The techniques adopted with this novel consists of stream-of-consciousness, letters, dialogue, fables and music; and although these techniques were not in themselves overwhelming, I have to say that I didn’t really like this book and it has been a hard slog to get to the end. Please be aware that I will reveal details from the novel that you may wish to remain ignorant of if you are intending to read the book yourself.

The book had really appealed to me; from short descriptions and others’ reviews on GoodReads etc. it looked like it would be a great, if intense, read. Just take a look at the blurb on the back of the book:

Malina is a work of sharp, unforgettable images and an irresistible narrative. Here is the story of lives painfully intertwined: the unnamed narrator, haunted by nightmarish memories of her father, lives with the androgynous Malina, an initially remote and dispassionate man who ultimately becomes an ominous influence. Plunging toward its riveting finale, Malina brutally lays bare the struggle for love and the limits of discourse between men and women.

So, ok, it’s the job of the blurb-writer to make the book sound interesting but I find it amusing reading this having read the book as I barely recognise the book from the blurb. So, it is true that the story is told from the point of view of the female, unnamed writer, and this is often fragmentary and opaque. We are drip-fed bits of information but at such a slow rate that it soon becomes extremely frustrating to read. The narrator shares an apartment in Vienna with the somewhat nebulous Malina and appears to have a relationship with the Hungarian man, Ivan. It transpires that Malina and the narrator have known each other since they were young but it is unclear whether they are lovers, brother and sister or just roommates. Malina is a steadying force on the narrator as he offers advice and generally helps out around the flat. In the second part of the novel, in which the narrator describes her harrowing experiences of her father via her nightmares, Malina acts as a confidant, watching over her as she sleeps and he is there as a friend when she wakes. The relationship between Malina and the narrator is alluded to in the text quite early on:

There are people who think that Malina and I are married. We never considered that we might be married, that such a possibility could exist, nor even the idea that other people might think that we were married. For the longest time it never crossed our minds that, like other people, we appear as man and wife wherever we go. This was a complete surprise for us, but we had no idea what to make of it. We laughed a lot.

This is helpful but it still doesn’t clarify their relationship. By the third part of the novel Malina takes on a more active role and by the end of the novel it seems that he is in fact a manifestation of a part of the narrator; as the narrator descends into madness and disappears into a crack in the wall it is only Malina that’s left in the flat. Early on in the novel the narrator had cryptically stated the following:

Ivan and I: the world converging.
Malina and I, since we are one: the world diverging.

The narrator has a relationship with Ivan, who is divorced and has two children, Béla and András, they meet at the flat for coffee and cigarettes and they are constantly on the phone to each other when separated. As the novel progresses it becomes apparent that, although Ivan visits the narrator’s flat, he never has any interactions with Malina and this is made clear at the end of the novel when Malina answers the phone to Ivan who is unaware of Malina’s existence. Where Malina is a shadowy character, Ivan is tangible if a little dull. The telephone conversations between the narrator and Ivan are often inconsequential such as this one.

How was it? Very interesting.
Oh right, so-so, and you
Nothing much, it was interesting
You be sure and go to bed early
You’re the one who’s yawning, you should go to sleep
I’m not going to, I don’t know yet
No, but tomorrow I have to
Do you really have to tomorrow?

Ivan mildly reprimands the narrator for dwelling on the darker aspects of life and at times Ivan’s positive mood affects the narrator, such as when driving through Vienna or when they go on outings with Ivan’s children. But by the end it is the narrator’s negative moods that affects Ivan’s rather than the other way round. In the third part of the book Ivan and the narrator have the following incredibly vague conversation whilst lying on the bed.

Ivan begins: I have to talk to you. Do you remember? I once said there are some things I won’t tell you. But if I…what would you, if I?
If you? I ask. It can hardly be heard.
And if you? I repeat.
Ivan says: I think I have to tell it to you now.
I don’t ask: What do you have to tell me? Because otherwise he might go on talking. But even if I stay silent a little longer he might ask: What would you…

And nothing is asked; nothing is resolved. Which is what makes this novel very frustrating at times, but it is probably what happens in reality more often than not. By the end of the novel it is Malina who appears to be more tangible and Ivan who is a more shadowy character. It is with Malina that the narrator can have meaningful conversations but it is with Ivan that she can have fun.

As previously mentioned I found this incredibly frustrating to read, especially the first part which consisted of 116 pages and contains a lot of pointless telephone conversations with Ivan, letters written to a Herr Schöntal and a fairy tale called The Mysteries of the Princess of Kagran. Part Two was a lot more impressive as it consists of the narrator’s memories of her brutal, sadistic father. Her recollections of her father become increasingly surreal as her father becomes almost like a demonic being and he even subsumes other men’s personalities as well as the narrator’s mother’s physical appearance. I felt that this second part would have been a great short-story. The third part of the book follows on from the first but was generally better, especially the last few pages. But again I felt that the first and third parts would have worked better as a single short-story, especially if the first part had been heavily edited. But reading over these sections now whilst writing this review I am wondering if it is a book that would benefit greatly from a second-read. I think part of the problem was that it was quite different from the book that I was expecting it to be, and though I don’t think it will ever be one of my favourites I think it is probably better than I feel it is at this moment in time. In the Afterword Mark Anderson says that the book was originally criticised for being ‘overly fragmented’ or ‘subjective’ but has since become more appreciated. He also suggests that there is a lot more going on in the novel than I have mentioned, for example he says that it is ‘composed like a musical score’, that the characters reflect the structure of postwar Vienna, that sections allude to the Holocaust or Dante’s Hell etc. but such interpretations are beyond me. Have you read Malina?

I read Malina as part of German Literature Month VI.
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‘The String of Pearls’ by Joseph Roth

In the spring of the year 18——, the Shah-in-Shah, the great, exalted and holy monarch, the absolute ruler and overlord of all the lands of Persia, began to feel a sense of malaise of a kind he had never experienced before.

And so begins Joseph Roth’s novel, The String of Pearls. If it seems like the beginning of a fairy tale, or folk tale, then its original title, Die Geschichte von der 1002en Nacht (The Tale of the 1002nd Night) would probably support that. For me the beginning of this novel felt so much like a Maupassant story that I wondered how Roth was roth_string-of-pearls-fcx-700pxgoing to spin it out for the whole length of a novel. But Roth is playing a different game here; what it is I’m not quite sure, but he’s certainly playing around with our expectations of how the story is going to proceed.

So, the story begins around 1870-ish, with the Shah of Persia deciding to visit Vienna as a means to improve his physical and psychological health. After some amusing delays (you will have to read it to discover these) he arrives in Vienna and is treated with respect by the authorities and great interest by the populace. We are introduced to Baron Taittinger, Captain of the Ninth Dragoons, who has been seconded to assist with the running of the Shah’s visit. The Baron is a bit of a loveable idiot who likes to split human beings into three categories: ‘charmers’, ‘so-so’s’ and ‘bores’; there are too many bores around for the Baron’s liking. Meanwhile the Shah is treated to all sorts of entertainments, and it is whilst attending a ball that he is smitten by the Countess W. Bored with his harem of 365 wives he wants to fall in love with a Western woman.

He had come to Europe to enjoy the singular, to forget the plural, to trespass on individual property, to break the law, just once, to experience the pleasure of unlawful possession and taste the particular, sophisticated pleasures of the European, the Christian, the Westerner.

Used to geting what he wants the Shah demands that the countess is brought to him that evening. So what can the Austrian courtiers do? The Countess can’t be treated like a common prostitute and the Shah will feel snubbed if they refuse him his wish. It turns out that the Baron, who had been involved briefly with the countess before her marriage, had also had a brief fling with a girl, Mizzi Schinagl, daughter of a shopkeeper, who looks as if she could be the twin sister of the countess; it’s decided that she should ‘stand-in’ for the countess and be presented to the Shah. Mizzi, who is currently working in a brothel, is persuaded to do this and everything goes to plan. As a gift, the Shah gives Mizzi a string of pearls.

It is here that the focus of the story becomes more fluid as we now follow Mizzi Schinagl and her relationship with the Baron and the brothel owner Frau Matzner. We have already been told how Mizzi had given birth to a son by the Baron; the Baron however had no interest in the boy and it was left to Mizzi to bring him up. Frau Matzner advises Mizzi to marry Xandl, her longstanding fiancé and to put money into the haberdashery that had been bought for her by the Baron. But Mizzi is in love with the Baron—her love for the Baron persists throughout the novel, despite the Baron’s apparent indifference. Mizzi sells the pearls and ends up losing the money and going to prison over a scam. The String of Pearls has an enormous number of characters for such a small book and it is from this point in the novel that it became a bit disorienting for me as I was no longer sure who was the main focus of the book; we switch from Mizzi to Matzner to the Baron to a writer called Lazik and back to the Baron. In the end the book is about the Baron’s and Mizzi’s relationship, but being rather an unconventional one, we are taken on a circuitous journey. Roth’s description of the Baron is rather entertaining:

He took the Captain as he was, and was fond of him, with his cheery heartlessness, his incapacity to think beyond a couple of thoughts, for which his skull was far too roomy, his insignificant love affairs and childish infatuations, and the pointless and unconnected remarks that came out of his mouth, seemingly at random. He was a mediocre officer, who didn’t care about his comrades, his men, his career.

The Baron is a bit of a blockhead who just breezes through life but as his money runs out and he is forced to resign from the army, due to a scandal over some dodgy literature, he has to depend on others. But it’s too late for any drastic changes to be made to his life. In telling this story Roth avoids giving us what we want, instead he veers away at the last minute from doing so. For example, near the end of the book it looks like the Baron realises that he loves, or at least cares for, Mizzi and contemplates making an honest woman of her…but then he doesn’t do anything about it; he appears to just forget about it. We expect the Baron to realise the errors of his way of life but he does no such thing, instead he misses the army life where he was happiest and tries to turn the clock back.

This crazy book is the kind of book that only begins to make a bit more sense once we’ve finished it. What seemed quite random at the time makes a bit more sense now that I’ve completed it. But it was a fun read full of strangely compelling characters and bizarre scenes. In his introduction the translator, Michael Hofmann, sums the book up brilliantly:

The String of Pearls is a strange book: frothy, highly decorated, full of money and costumes and ambience and light, a pitiless morality with the cruelty of fable. The novelist keeps skipping ahead of the reader, into ever more distressing and constricting settings and situations—but he never stops skipping. Its scenes and images live in the memory: in this short book there is enough for many books.

It’s certainly packed with a multitude of characters and memorable scenes that it will be difficult to forget. The novel comes full circle with another visit by the Shah but this time the Baron is in disgrace. The last paragraph contains a comment by a writer that could easily be Roth’s justification for writing the novel.

I might be capable of making figures that have heart, conscience, passion, emotion and decency. But there’s no call for that at all in the world. People are only interested in monsters and freaks, so I give them their monsters. Monsters are what they want!

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‘The Invisible Collection’ by Stefan Zweig

german-literature-month-viI am having trouble getting started with my reading for GLM VI, what with prior reading commitments, work and general weariness/laziness. But in order to get things going I thought I’d re-read a story by Stefan Zweig that I read earlier in the year and one which I enjoyed thoroughly. It was one of my favourites in the Pushkin Press collection, Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig. It was originally published in 1925 as Die unsichtbare Sammlung. Please be warned though that this review contains spoilers. I also reviewed another short story from the collection called Mendel the Bibliophile.

The main story involves an antique dealer who tells the narrator the troubles he’s been having recently—the story was written in 1925 and is presumably during the period of hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic. He mentions that in order to stimulate trade he’d fallen back on lists of old customers. He was just returning from one such customer, an octogenarian, whom his firm hadn’t heard Zweig-Collected-Storiesfrom since the outbreak of World War One even though he had been a regular customer for the previous fifty years or so. The antique dealer reckoned that it would be worth paying the gentleman a visit as either the old man or his heirs may be willing to sell some of his pieces. He discovers that the old man is still alive and as he has few visitors he is happy to talk to the antique dealer. Upon meeting the old man the dealer realises that he is now blind, which slightly unnerves him. The old man is not stupid and realises that the dealer is there to try to drum up business from his old customers but they nonetheless get on well together and the old man looks forward to showing the dealer his collection and talking to someone who knows the subject. But just when the old man calls for the key to his collection of artworks and engravings his wife attempts to put him off until after lunch when his daughter, Annemarie, can be present. The old man accepts grudgingly.

When the dealer has finished his lunch at the hotel he is visited by the daughter, Annemarie. She is flustered and explains that her father’s collection is not complete anymore as several items have been sold due to hard times. She tells the dealer how they attempted to get by without touching the collection but in the end they had to, without, of course, her father knowing. Every day he would ‘look’ through his collection not realising that most of it had been sold and replaced with cheap reprints. The daughter pleads with the dealer to play along and not to enlighten the old man.

“Maybe we have done him an injustice, but we couldn’t help it. One must live, and human lives, the lives of four orphaned children as well as my sister, are surely worth more than sheets of printed paper. To this day, what we did hasn’t taken any of his pleasure from him; he is happy to be able to leaf through his portfolios for three hours every afternoon, talking to every print as if it were a human being. And today…today would perhaps be the happiest day of his life; he’s been waiting years for a chance to show a connoisseur his darlings. Please…I beg and pray you, please don’t destroy his happiness!”

So of course the dealer agrees to keep the secret and returns with her to her parents’ apartment. The old man begins to lovingly show his Dürer prints and Rembrandt sketches to the dealer, gazing at them and touching them, caressing them as he describes them in detail and how he acquired them, not realising that they were cheap copies. Although at first disconcerted, the dealer begins to play his part of the enthusiastic art lover and exclaim when each piece was presented.

And so that headlong, eloquent recital of his triumphs went on for another good two hours. I can’t say how eerie it was to join him in looking at a hundred, maybe two hundred blank sheets of paper of poor reproductions, but in the memory of this man, who was tragically unaware of their absence, the prints were so incredibly real that he could describe and praise every one of them unerringly, in precise detail, just as he remembered the order of them: the invisible collection that in reality must now be dispersed to all four corners of the earth was still genuinely present to the blind man, so touchingly deceived, and his passion for what he saw was so overwhelming that even I almost began to believe it.

The old man is so pleased with showing his treasures to someone who knows their true worth that he doesn’t want it to end. Reluctantly he accepts that the dealer must leave to catch his train. The women look towards the dealer with gratitude that he has made the old man happy with his complicity. The dealer feels a little ashamed that he was being thanked when his original intentions had been to try to obtain a few good items to sell.

And I felt—I can’t put it any other way—I felt a sense of reverence, although I was still ashamed of myself, without really knowing why.

This is a beautifully simple story. I’m sure that most of us have been praised for something that has turned out well but where our original intentions weren’t so benevolent. Zweig’s clear, simple style is a joy to read; it reminds me of writers like Chekhov but also of Ingmar Bergman’s style of telling a story, at least his earlier works anyway, where there is no clutter, no side stories or tricks, just keep the story simple and keep to the point. Everyone should try Stefan Zweig at some point—I’m glad I have.

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‘Mendel the Bibliophile’ by Stefan Zweig

Zweig-Collected-StoriesI recently read The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig and although I enjoyed the collection I didn’t get round to posting about any of them, even though I wanted to post about every one. One of my favourites was Mendel the Bibliophile (originally published as Buchmendel in 1929), which is really ‘just’ a thirty-page character study of the extremely bookish Mendel.

The story begins with the narrator describing a return to Vienna after being absent for several years; it is raining heavily and he dives into a café, he soon settles down and falls into a state of lethargy as he waits for the rain to stop. He begins to have the feeling that he’s been there before but doesn’t recognise anything in particular.

But suddenly, and in a curious way, I was brought out of my drowsy state as a vague impulse began to stir within me. It was like the beginning of a slight toothache, when you don’t know yet if it is on the right or the left, if it is starting in the upper or the lower jaw; there was just a certain tension, a mental uneasiness. For all at once—I couldn’t have said how—I was aware that I must have been here once before, years ago, and that a memory of some kind was connected with these walls, these chairs, these tables, this smoky room, apparently strange to me.

It is annoying for the narrator not to be able to remember the place and he racks his brain to try to discover the connection with his past. When he walks around the café it dawns on him where he is; it’s the Café Gluck and the table in the corner is where Jakob Mendel, the bibliophile, used to sit.

I saw him at once as he had been, always sitting at that rectangular table, its dingy grey marble top heaped high at all times with books and other writings. I saw the way he persistently sat there, imperturbable, his eyes behind his glasses hypnotically fixed on a book, humming and muttering as he read, rocking his body and his inadequately polished, freckled bald patch back and forth, a habit acquired in the cheder, his Jewish primary school in eastern Europe.

Mendel was largely oblivious to his surroundings as he read his books and it was often difficult to attract his attention as the narrator discovered when he was introduced to Mendel one time when he was trying to find some books on Mesmer. Mendel had an incredible memory for books and was able to find any that were required; he could remember all the publisher details, where and when it was published, the different editions and so on. During this period, before WWI, he used the café as his office for trading in books; he was accepted and looked after by the owner and the employees of the café.

So, the narrator starts to wonder what happened to Mendel. No one seems to even remember who he was until the narrator asks Frau Sporschil, the ‘toilet lady’, who reveals that he died seven years ago and explains to the narrator what happened to him. With the onset of WWI, which Mendel seemed not to notice, he attracted the attention of the police who were shocked to discover that he was a Russian citizen who was unknown them. Things take a downward turn, but I won’t reveal any more of what happens so not to spoil things for potential readers of this story. There is no real plot to the story, instead we find out more about Mendel from Sporschil and the narrator discovers just how unwordly Mendel was. The narrator and Sporschil form a temporary, but compassionate, bond as they discuss the tribulations of Mendel and it is this as well as the remembrance of Mendel that makes the story heartwarming.

And yet we understood one another wonderfully well as we sat at his old table, now abandoned, in the company of the shades we had conjured up between us, for memory is always a bond, and ever loving memory is a bond twice over.

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‘A Child’s Heart’ by Hermann Hesse

Hesse_Klingsors-Last-Summer-fcXC-700pxA Child’s Heart is a short story included in the Picador collection Klingsor’s Last Summer – uh! what a cover! but hey, it was the ’70s. The collection also includes the title story and Klein and Wagner. A Child’s Heart is beautifully told but it starts ominously, talking of fate and the effects that decisions can have on one’s life. The adult narrator is discussing an event that involved the narrator’s father and which happened thirty years before, when he was a child. The narrator had had a guilty conscience since the morning, despite not being aware of any wrongdoing. As he enters ‘his father’s house’ at lunchtime he is pondering his natural wickedness and his longing to be good. Looking back, the narrator describes his feelings that day:

If I were to reduce all my feelings and their painful conflicts to a single name, I can think of no other word but: dread. It was dread, dread and uncertainty, that I felt in all those hours of shattered childhood felicity: dread of punishment, dread of my own conscience, dread of stirrings in my soul which I considered forbidden and criminal.

On this day the narrator decides to see his father. He goes to his father’s study, enters, but no-one is there. A compulsion to steal comes over him, as it has done before, and he steals a few pen nibs. After nosing about further he finds some dried figs hidden away in a drawer and without thinking, he eats a few and pockets some more. The fear then returns and he joins the others at the meal table.

Now the misery was upon me. I would have let my hand be chopped off if that could have restored my figs to the drawer. I decided to throw the figs away, to take them to school and give them away. If only I were rid of them, if only I never had to see them again!

But he doesn’t throw them away. After lunch he absentmindedly eats a few and hides the rest behind some books. Nothing good is going to happen on this day—he thinks of his own inadequacies, he bunks off school and gets in a fight with his friend…but still the sense of dread, of being discovered pervades his thoughts.

This story effectively describes the thoughts and feelings that a child has when contemplating the world. At times the narrator feels powerful, ready to stand-up to anyone: his father, bullies, God; and then the realisation hits that he’s still a child and is powerless in the adult’s world. The narrator wonders if maybe his ‘crime’ won’t be discovered by his father but other times he seems to want to be found out.

The ending is great. It has a subtle twist and a bit of a ‘fuck you’ vibe to it – brilliant stuff! I won’t spoil the ending as you’ll want to read this one.

hesse-revisedI read this as part of the Hermann Hesse Reading Week hosted by Caroline at ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Karen at ‘Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings’. Check out some of the other posts at the links above.

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Filed under Fiction, Hesse, Hermann