Tag Archives: German Literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Demian’ by Hermann Hesse (GLM VII)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘A Confirmed Bachelor’ by Arthur Schnitzler

A Confirmed Bachelor is a novella included in the collection Vienna 1900: Games with Love and Death. It was originally translated by E.C. Slade in 1924 and published under the title Dr Graesler. The original German version was published in 1917 as Doktor Gräsler, Badearzt.

The story begins with the forty-eight year old Dr Graesler leaving his winter home in Lanzarote following the recent suicide of his sister. To Graesler’s annoyance the manager of the hotel suggests that Graesler should return the following year with a young wife. Graesler briefly visits his house in Berlin before continuing to a health resort elsewhere in the country where he has practised for six years. Before long Graesler attends to an elderly patient, Frau Schleheim, and is drawn into socialising with the Schleheim family. Dr Graesler is especially attracted to the daughter of the family, Sabine. Sabine is twenty-seven, quite serious and has had past experience working as a nurse in Berlin. One evening conversation turns to a local dillapidated sanotorium that is possibly up for sale. It would need renovating but the idea is put into Graesler’s head about running the sanatorium. Sabine is very enthusiastic about this project and is eager to assist Graesler in turning this into reality. She also offers to help with the adminstration of the spa, obviously looking forward to doing something useful and productive with her time. They spend hours together discussing the renovation and Graesler goes to visit the current owner who is eager to sell. After an evening with the Schleheims Graesler takes leave of Sabine:

He held Sabine’s hand a few moments, then raised it to his lips and kissed it fervently. She made no attempt to withdraw it, and when he looked up he thought her expression seemed more contented, even brighter.

Though Sabine and Graesler are both a bit awkward when it comes to matters of love both seem to be falling for each other. The following day, though, Graesler receives a letter from Sabine stating that she would like to marry Graesler if he were to offer. She admits that she doesn’t yet love him but their friendship is close to love. She reveals her past loves and discusses the future of the sanatorium in a cool manner. Graesler is a bit confused by the cool, dispassionate way that she has worked everything out, their marriage, the sanatorium, she even takes time to dissect his character; he notes to himself that she had correctly observed that he was priggish, vain, cold and irresolute. He wonders what else she may think after several years of married life. Graesler doesn’t know how to respond to this so he basically panics. He was already going to leave for Berlin in a few days time so he decides to leave earlier, i.e. straight away; he sends Sabine a letter informing her that he will return in two weeks time with an answer.

Whilst in Berlin Graesler is at a bit of a loose end and so he rummages through his dead sister’s possessions, he visits his lawyer, Böhlinger, and chats up a girl on the tram. The girl, Katharina, agrees to go to the theatre with him that evening and returns to his flat for supper. It’s not long before Katharina, who works in a glove shop, is living with him. Graesler also gets drawn in to attending a neighbour’s daughter who possibly has scarlet fever but who soon recovers. But now Graesler begins to think of Sabine and wonders if he had made a mistake.

More and more it seemed to him that Katharina’s true mission had been to lead him back to Sabine, whose love was to be for him the real meaning of his life. And the more trustingly Katharina—with no ulterior end in view—offered him the treasures of her gay, young heart, the more impatiently and hopefully his deepest yearnings went out to Sabine.

Note I will reveal the whole of the story in the rest of the post so you may wish to skip it if you don’t want to know the ending.

And so Graesler rushes back to the spa town to see Sabine and ask her forgiveness and to close the deal over the sanatorium. But the sanatorium is no longer up for sale and Sabine is no longer interested and wants nothing to do with him. Graesler now decides that Katharina is his soulmate and imagines returning to parade her in front of Sabine. So he heads back to Berlin only to find that Katharina is in bed with scarlet fever, possibly as a result of his contact with the neighbour’s girl. He stays with her until she dies and is upset by her death. After staying with Böhlinger for a few days he returns to his flat and bumps in to Frau Sommer and her child, Fanny, who had recovered from scarlet fever. Within a month Graesler has married Frau Sommer and the story ends with them visiting his hotel in Lanzarote to spend the winter.

This is an excellent story by Schnitzler, the character Dr Graesler is certainly annoying, he’s morally dubious and all the criticisms that Sabine accused him of are correct. But aren’t we all a little bit like Graesler at times? I suspect I am, and it’s not nice seeing such characteristics laid bare for all to see. It’s curious though that for Graesler everything turns out just peachy in the end.

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‘The Spring Sonata’ by Arthur Schnitzler

I recently enjoyed reading Schnitzler’s posthumously published work Late Fame and felt like reading some more. As I had a copy of the collection of four stories, Vienna 1900: Games with Love and Death, I could easily satisfy my hunger for more Schnitzler. He’s an interesting writer as he straddles the 19th and 20th centuries, he’s experimenting a bit with style that would seem quite alien to the 19th century writer and he’s obviously interested in delving deeper into the psychology of his characters.

The longest story, at 160 pages, and the last in the collection is called The Spring Sonata. The notes say that this was a 1914 translation by J.H. Wisdom and Marr Murray and was originally titled Bertha Garlan. The original story was titled Frau Bertha Garlan and was published in 1900. I have been trying to track down what Schnitzler translations are available generally and have collected the information here.

Bertha is a widow and has a young son Fritz. She was twenty-six years old when she married Victor Garlen who had proposed following the deaths of her father and mother. She did not love him. Victor died three years after their marriage. She now lives with her brother-in-law’s family and to earn some money she gives piano lessons to children of the town. Her life is comfortable but a little tedious.

It seemed to her as if it had been an unpleasant day. She went over the actual events in her mind, and was astonished to find that, after all, the day had been like many hundreds before it and many, many more that were yet to come.

One day Bertha sees an advert for a concert by Emil Lindbach. Lindbach had been the only man that she had loved twelve years before when she was still a student.

Bertha is friendly with Herr and Frau Rupius. Herr Rupius is paralysed and enjoys examining engravings. Frau Rupius is still young looking and healthy and enjoys visiting Vienna frequently, possibly to have love affairs. Bertha misses the Vienna of her youth and when Frau Rupius invites her to accompany her the following day to Vienna she accepts.

On arrival in Vienna Bertha is self-conscious of her provincial clothes. After visiting a dressmaker Bertha visits her cousin and arranges to meet up with Frau Rupius for the return train. She spends time walking round some of the places that she and Emil used to frequent.

The following day she looks through some of her old letters including those between her and Emil. There hadn’t been an actual break in their relationship, they had just drifted apart. Upon seeing in a newspaper that Emil had received an award she decides, on an impulse, to send him a congratulatory letter and to Bertha’s delight Emil responds quickly suggesting that they should meet next time she’s in Vienna. She replies to Emil and arranges to stay in Vienna for a couple of days and to meet Emil at a museum. Bertha tries to confide in Frau Rupius but she feels a little intimidated by her.

Before her trip she is propositioned in the street by Klingemann, whom she finds odious, and visits Herr Rupius who suspects that his wife is about to leave him and is in an emotional state.

Bertha is excited about meeting Emil and as she walks about Vienna before their meeting she fantasises about living in Vienna with Emil.

Yes, it would be very nice to live in Vienna and be able to do just as she liked. Well, who could say how everything would turn out, what the next few hours would bring forth, what prospects for her future life that evening would open out before her? What was it then, that really forced her to live in that dreadful little town?

The meeting goes very well, they talk as if there hadn’t been a twelve year break in their relationship, but Emil has to rush off after they arrange to meet later that evening. She then spends the day thinking about the evening and what it means to her.

I won’t reveal any more of the story as it will ruin it for anyone wishing to read it themselves. I was half-dreading some 19th century type of ending where Bertha will be punished for her ‘immoral’ escapades but was relieved to find that Schnitzler was a lot cleverer than that. The beauty of Schnitzler’s writing is his unobtrusive stream-of-consciousness approach where we get to see how Bertha’s thoughts on Emil, her own life, the Rupius’ lives etc. go through subtle changes over the days following her trip to Vienna which are fascinating to read. The story has a dramatic ending, though thankfully not melodramatic, and has a sort of moral or summary of the whole story which I’ll quote below and which surely points towards a 20th century morality.

Bertha divined what an enormous wrong had been wrought against the world in that the longing for pleasure is placed in woman just as in man; and that with women that longing is a sin, demanding expiation, if the yearning for pleasure is not at the same time a yearning for motherhood.

This story is available on Project Gutenberg as Bertha Garlan and looks as if it is the same translation as in my copy.

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‘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.

german-literature-month-vi

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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.
german-literature-month-vi

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Filed under Bachmann, Ingeborg, Fiction