Tag Archives: German Literature

E.T.A. Hoffmann: ‘Master Flea’ (Feuding Telescopes Excerpt)

I had hoped to post a full review of Hoffmann’s riotous novella, Master Flea, and maybe I still will, but Lockdown Lethargy has taken root and a blogging weariness has set in. However, to save this blog from going into complete hibernation I thought I’d share this brilliant excerpt from the story; it’s too complicated to explain in detail but in summary two rival scientists, Leuwenhoek and Swammerdamm, have encountered each other in the hallway of a house—and a feud ensues.

…Swammerdamm drew a small telescope from his pocket, extended it to its full length, and assailed his enemy with a loud cry of: ‘Draw, you scoundrel, if you have the courage!’
   Leuwenhoek promptly had a similar instrument in his hand, likewise extended it, and shouted: ‘Come on, I’ll fight you, and you’ll soon feel my power!’ The two put the telescopes to their eyes and fell upon each other furiously with sharp and murderous strokes, lengthening and shortening their weapons by pulling the extensions in and out. There were feints, parries, turns, in a word all the tricks of the fencer, and they seemed to grow ever more infuriated. If one of them was hit, he screamed, leapt into the air, and performed the most wonderful caprioles, and the most beautiful entrechats and pirouettes, like the best solo dancer in the Paris ballet, until the other focused the shortened telescope on him. If the same thing happened to the other, he behaved similarly. Thus they alternately displayed the boldest leaps, the wildest gestures, the most furious outcry; the sweat was dripping from their foreheads, their bloodshot eyes were protruding from their heads, and since no cause for their St Vitus dance was visible, save that they looked through the telescopes in turn, one was obliged to conclude that they were lunatics escaped from the madhouse. For the rest, the duel was a most pleasing sight.

This translation is by Ritchie Robertson from the Oxford University Press edition of The Golden Pot and Other Tales first published in 1992.

Below is an illustration of the event from an edition of the novella available on Project Gutenberg.

Image source: Project Gutenberg

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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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‘Grieshuus’ by Theodor Storm (GLM X)

Image from publisher’s website

Grieshuus: The Chronicle of a Family was originally published in 1884 as Zur Chronik von Grieshuus. This translation, by Denis Jackson, who sadly died earlier this year, was published by Angel Classics in 2017. The events in Storm’s novella take place in a northen Schleswig town and covers four generations of an aristocratic Junker family, roughly covering the period of the mid-seventeenth century to the early eighteenth century.

The novella begins with the narrator recalling an incident in his youth when he went out walking on the heathland and discovered a few remains and foundation stones of what he was convinced was once Grieshuus manor; after discovering a book abou the manor the narrator had tried to find out more about the manor and its inhabitants. The first book mainly concerns the twin sons of the current Junker, Hinrich and Detlev. Although quite similar when young they grow up to be quite different; Detlev is studious, whereas Hinrich prefers the outdoor life. Although they get along together quite well, the narrative in this first book ends with a violent quarrel between the two. Generally quick to temper, Hinrich’s passion soon cools, and he is then ashamed of his actions. One time, Hinrich hits a boy on the head with his heavy stick in front of a girl, Bärbe, and later on he beats his dog to death because it refuses to join in on a wolf hunt. He admits this beating to Bärbe, who is now a young woman, and vows never to do such a thing again. Of course, Hinrich and Bärbe have fallen in love, which others have noticed, including Hinrich’s father, who disapproves of the match as Bärbe is a commoner. Both Hinrich’s father and Bärbe’s father die and their funerals are held on the same day; Hinrich asks the pastor to wed himself to Bärbe at the end of her father’s funeral. But a will has been written and Grieshuus has been left to Hinrich’s brother, Detlev, who has married a more suitable woman.

I shall reveal some of the plot in the next paragraph so you may wish to skip it if you don’t want to know what happens.

Although Hinrich is happy to have married Bärbe, he resents the fact that his brother has inherited what he believes is rightfully his, as he is the older of the two. Animosity grows between the two brothers and when Detlev sends a letter to the pregnant Bärbe insinuating that their marriage is invalid, in shock she goes into a premature labour and soon dies after giving birth to a daughter. In a rage he confronts his brother and kills him. Not only has he committed murder but he has broken his solemn pledge to Bärbe not to be violent again. And so, like Cain, Hinrich disappears to wander the earth, as far as anyone knows. Book Two begins a generation later; there are more foreign troops occupying the land, a Swedish colonel, who is besotted with Henriette, marries her. Henriette is Hinrich’s daughter and within a year Rolf, Hinrich’s grandson is born. With Hinrich still absent the family move into Grieshuus.

The rest of the book is an account written by Rolf’s tutor, Caspar Bokenfield. In many ways Grieshuus is a typically nineteenth century work, concerned with families, inheritance and forbidden love affairs, but with Storm it seems much different than an English novel of the period. This is partly because it is written as a novella rather than a novel; it proceeds at a pace, but does not seem rushed; with Storm the reader needs to pay attention to every word and to slow down their reading. The double funeral scene where Hinrich marries Bärbe is wonderful, but packed with events. In under two pages we learn of the deaths of the fathers of the couple, that Hinrich’s father has left a will and of the marriage of the couple. Blink, and you might miss something important.

And when the final Lord’s Prayer had also been said, he took the deceased’s daughter in his arms in front of everyone and held her firmly until he saw the pastor striding down the path on the way to his house. ‘Come!’ he said softly to the lovely girl, such that he was overheard only by an old woman next to him who looked up at him in puzzlement. And as though each knew the other’s thoughts and were both of the same mind, they followed the pastor hand in hand to his house. ‘Would you kindly marry us, Herr Pastor,’ said the Junker, ‘so that this girl may find a home in my heart.’
    And the old priest laid his trembling hands upon their heads.

In the perceptive introduction David Artiss highlights the amount of symbolism that exists throughout the book, most of which I wouldn’t normally notice. Wolves are a constant threat to humans throughout the novella with the heathland virtually off limits because it is so dangerous. Dogs are also mentioned often. Artiss notes that Hinrich’s own character is more wild, more wolf-like at the beginning but by the end he has tamed his own nature to be more dog-like, more domesticated. But still, it is not enough to save Grieshuus from decay.

Grieshuus was the second book that I read as part of ‘German Literature Month 10’.

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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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‘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 Radetzky March Readalong: Part One


When Caroline, at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, and Lizzy, at Lizzy’s Literary Life, announced that they were hosting a ‘Radetzy March Readalong’ I knew I’d have to join in. The Radetzky March is comprised of three parts and Caroline and Lizzy have asked those of us taking part to consider questions related to each part. Here are my answers to the questions on Part One.

What enticed you to readalong with us?
I have read a few books by Joseph Roth and have enjoyed them all but I hadn’t read his most famous novel, The Radetzky March, which is the only book by Roth to be included in Boxall’s list 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. The books by Roth that I have read are Hotel Savoy, The String of Pearls, The Hundred Days and, one of my favourite books, The Legend of the Holy Drinker. I’ll admit that The Radetzky March had never really appealed to me as much as Roth’s other books but when Caroline & Lizzy first made public their intentions I was reading Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson which was about the First World War from Germany’s and Austria-Hungary’s perspective and so I thought that it would be a good time to read a novel about the Austria-Hungaria military set prior to WWI.

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading?
I am reading a Kindle version of the Granta edition translated by Michael Hofmann. I bought it back in 2014 from Amazon when they were selling it off cheap. I have no issues with the translation.

Is the novel living up to your expectations?
Well, yes and no. It hadn’t appealed to me before as I’m usually reluctant to read military books; though in the past I have ended up enjoying some books, or sections of books, that have a military setting. The first chapter I really enjoyed but I felt that it read more like a self-contained short story than the opening chapter of a novel. I felt the next few chapters were a bit confusing as Roth jumps a generation to concentrate on Carl Joseph. I have now re-read parts of the book including the whole of chapters seven and eight and I’m enjoying it a lot more now. I’m now looking forward to Parts Two and Three a lot more than I was.

How would you comment on the first few sentences? Is this an effective opening? “The Trottas were not an old family. Their founder had been enobled following the battle of Solferino. He was a Slovene. The name of his village – Sipolje – was taken into his title. Fate had singled him out for a particular deed. He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.” (Translation: Michael Hofmann)
The opening lines almost summarise the whole of the first chapter but hides enough to make the reader intrigued to find out more. I always like opening lines that draw the reader in. I thought they were effective.

Roth subscribed to Chekhov’s view that a writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness”. That doesn’t mean that we as readers need to be the same! How do you feel about the hero of Solferino’s crusade to return to obscurity? What are the ramifications of this for his descendants?
When the elder von Trotta discovers that the story of him saving the Emperor’s life has been used for propaganda purposes he feels as if he has been cheated of the truth. No-one he talks to can understand his level of indignation over this but it is enough for him to leave the military and move away. When he objects to this mythologising of this part of his life he just receives more honours. His faith in Emperor and Empire appears to be broken. His descendants, however, appear to accept their place amongst the aristocracy without question but this places a burden on them, and especially on Carl Joseph as he embarks on a military career, to constantly live up to the example set by the Hero of Solferino.

Carl Josef von Trotta follows his grandfather into the military. Is his life there honourable and meaningful? Is his fateful relationship with Dr Demant’s wife innocent?
Carl Joseph doesn’t seem to know quite how to behave. He doesn’t know how to talk to his servant, as he suspects his grandfather would have. He doesn’t feel comfortable with the other officers as he doesn’t share their enjoyment of drinking, womanising and playing cards. The military life in peacetime seems meaningless as he is denied the possibility of matching his grandfather’s achievement.

It is not clear whether Carl Joseph was romantically involved with Frau Demant: Demant’s father-in-law tells Demant that Carl Joseph was with his wife but Demant wants to believe that nothing is going on— Demant does not want to know the truth, whereas Baron von Trotta insists the truth should be told. Early on in the narrative everything suggests that Carl Joseph and Frau Demant’s relationship is not platonic. But once the duel has been declared Carl Joseph states that he was just escorting Frau Demant home on the night in question. This could be true but that does not mean that there was nothing going on between them before, or Carl Joseph could be dissembling. It is not clear why Demant left his wife at the theatre during the Second Act.

Strauss’s Radetzky March is heard almost as a refrain throughout this section. What is the significance of that?
As Strauss’s Radetzky March is jubilant and triumphant I can only assume that its appearance throughout the novel is ironic. As it has a military history it is relevant to Roth’s story.

Roth may not judge his characters, but his sights are aimed at other targets: the social order and the military code of honour, for instance. How does Roth critique these?
None of the Trotta men seem to be in control of their lives. When the Lt Trotta is enobled his old life is extinguished and he feels separated from his father whom he respects and loves. He forces his son, Franz, into a bureaucratic career whilst Franz forces his son, Carl Joseph, into a military career. Sons obey their fathers and subjects obey their Emperor. As aristocrats they have certain rights or privileges such as Carl Joseph’s apparent right to sleep with Sergeant Slama’s wife but they also have certain duties such as fighting duels to defend their honour—there is an excellent passage at the beginning of chapter eight which highlights this tension between rights and duties:

The officers went about like the baffling followers of some remote and cruel godhead, which simultaneously cast them as its colourfully disguised and magnificently decked sacrificial animals. People looked at them and shook their heads. They even felt sorry for them. They have many advantages, so people said. They can walk around with swords, women fall in love with them, and the Emperor looks after them in person, as if they were his own sons. But then, in a trice, before you’ve noticed anything, one of them has managed to offend another, and the offence needs to be washed away with red blood!…

Set in what was very much a man’s world, what do you think of the way Roth portrays the female characters?
Female characters are noticeable by their absence. A novel about the military is going to be mostly about men but the wives and mothers of the three von Trotta men are barely mentioned at all and there is no mention of sisters, aunts etc. I don’t think Carl Joseph’s mother is even mentioned; it’s as if male begets male. Carl falls in love with Frau Slama at an early love and doesn’t seem to get over her but one wonders if that is because she is the only female he has any contact with. Frau Demant is probably the most prominent female character in the first part.

Do you have any further comments on this section?
I initially struggled a little with my reading of The Radetzky March but I’m coming round to suspect that the trouble is with me. I sometimes find it difficult jumping from one author to another especially when their styles differ which is what happened here as I went straight from reading L. P. Hartley to Joseph Roth. I was also expecting the novel to progress slowly through the generations but instead it jumped from grandfather to grandson which was unexpected. I have sometimes found the narrative to be deliberately misleading but I’m getting used to Roth’s style—I don’t recall his other books being difficult in this way.

In writing this post I have re-read several sections and the whole of chapters seven and eight and realise there was a lot that I missed which I put down to reading large portions of the book under ‘hostile reading conditions’, i.e. noisy and disjointed. I’m looking forward to advancing to Part Two. I loved the beginning of Chapter Eight where Roth compares the years before and after WWI—Vishy quotes the whole section in his post.

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‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’ – Exceptional Excerpt

My last post was my final contribution to German Literature Month at the end of November. Since then I read several books to get my TBR pile down in order to complete the GoodReads TBR challenge I’d signed up to. I also read a couple of short story collections by William Trevor but never got round to posting anything about them—do you also find that short story collections can sometimes be awkward to review? Over Christmas I read Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson, which was a chunky book on the First World War from Germany’s and Austria-Hungary’s perspective. I had intended to read this in November, both as part of GLM (though it wasn’t really eligible) and because it was the centenary of the end of WWI but time ran away from me. It was an interesting book as we rarely see WWI from the German side; it was at times a bit of a slog though, and I had intended to post something on it this weekend but I didn’t take any notes and, again, time has run away from me.

Continuing the German theme I am currently reading Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, a book that has taken me a bit of time to get into and one I very nearly abandoned, but I am halfway through and finished today’s reading with the quote below. It is quite an optimistic quote but it comes at quite a bleak point in the story where the main character has just been shoved out of a getaway car by his comrade and friend into the path of a chasing police car. Berlin Alexanderplatz is full of these vignettes or sketches away from the main text and is not typical of the rest of the narrative. I hope you enjoy it.

   Let us be happy when the sun rises and its beautiful light is here. Gas light may go out, electric light, too. People get up when the alarm-clock sounds, a new day has begun. If it was April 8th yesterday, it is the 9th today, if it was Sunday, it is now Monday. The year has not changed, nor the month, but a change has occurred nevertheless. The world has rolled ahead. The sun has risen. It is not certain what this sun is. Astronomers concern themselves a great deal with this body. According to them, it is the central body of our planetary system; for our earth is only a small planet, and what, indeed, are we? When a sun rises like that and we are glad, we should really be sad, for what are we, anyway; the sun is 300,000 times greater than the earth; and what a host of numbers and zeros there still are, and all they have to say is this: We are but a zero, nothing at all, just nothing. Simply ridiculous, isn’t it, to be happy over that.
   And yet, we are glad when the beautiful light is here, white and strong, and when it comes into the streets; and in the rooms all the colours awaken, and faces are there, human features. It is agreeable to touch shapes with one’s hands, but it is a joy to see, to see, to see, to see colours and lines. And we are glad, now we can show what we are, we act, we live. We are also glad in April for that bit of warmth, how glad the flowers are that they can grow! Surely that must be an error, a mistake, those terrible numbers with all the zeros!
   So, go on rising, sun, you don’t frighten us. We don’t care about your many miles, your diameter, your volume. Warm sun, just rise, bright light, arise. You are not big, you are not small, you are happiness.

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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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