Das weisse Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte aka The White Ribbon (2009) A German Mystery

From July, 1913 to the outbreak of World War I, a series of incidents take place in a German village. A horse trips on a wire and throws the rider; a woman falls to her death through rotted planks; the local baron’s son is hung upside down in a mill; parents slap and bully their children; a man is cruel to his long-suffering lover; another sexually abuses his daughter. People disappear. A callow teacher, who courts a nanny in the baron’s household, narrates the story and tries to investigate the connections among these accidents and crimes. What is foreshadowed? Are the children holy innocents? God may be in His heaven, but all is not right with the world; the center cannot hold.

The German movie The White Ribbon has won many prizes. It is labelled “mystery” and “drama”. For me this was a mystery with a very ghostly feel. Perfect for the R.I.P Challenge.

I was curious. I did not know much, just that the movie takes place in a German village, from July 1913 until the beginning of the first world war. Strange things happen in this village. The doctor has an accident because someone has set a trap for him. A woman dies. Children disappear and are found again injured, showing signs of torture. A bird gets savagely mutilated. The mother of a boy with down syndrome leaves without telling anyone. To say the least, this is a dark, gloomy and disturbing movie. An illustration of the so-called Poisonous or Black Pedagogy that was applied in Germany for a very long time. Most people in this movie are mean and cruel. If they don’t hurt each other with actions they do it with words. Things are not outspoken, everything happens behind closed doors. This is a society that is afraid of eternal sin but still commits so many daily crimes. In one of the last sequences people hear at church that war broke out. They cheer.

I did not enjoy this movie but must admit that it is very good. I have read a lot about this time and it is very accurate. The actors are outstanding and the black and white cinematography is atmospheric. It is also a very literary movie as the teacher who looks back on these events narrates many parts as if reading his memoirs.

I think The White Ribbon is a fascinating but very depressing movie. Don’t watch it if you need cheering up. As for the mystery part… Nothing is really resolved. I have my theories and would be glad to share them with someone who has seen it too. But to avoid spoilers I will keep quiet about it for now.

Susan Hill: The Woman in Black (1983)

Proud and solitary, Eel Marsh House surveys the windswept reaches of the salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway. Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, is summoned to attend the funeral Mrs Alice Drablow, the house’s sole inhabitant, unaware of the tragic secrets which lie hidden behind the shuttered windows. It is not until he glimpses a wasted young woman, dressed all in black, at the funeral, that a creeping sense of unease begins to take hold, a feeling deepened by the reluctance of the locals to talk of the woman in black – and her terrible purpose.

The Woman in Black is the second ghost story by Susan Hill I have read in a very short time. But since we are nearing the end of the R.I.P. Challenge this was the time or never.

I feel tempted to compare them as there are a lot of similarities but The Woman in Black is the creepier of the two. The settings are similar as well, although in this novel most of the horrifying events take place inside of a grand old mansion and only a few in the foggy marshes. The nature of the ghost in The Woman in Black is much more evil. It does really mean to harm those who see it.

Susan Hills writing is again very traditional, old-fashioned. This novel could have been written in the 19th century. This includes the narrative style as well as the themes and motives. Even so or maybe because of this it is beautifully written. The descriptions are detailed and atmospherical.

The story begins some thirty years after the main events. It is Christmas Eve and Arthur, our protagonist, is enjoying the company of his extended family on his beautiful estate Monks’ Piece. The family is gathered in the drawing room telling ghost stories when Arthur comes back from a short refreshing walk outside. They urge him to contribute to the fun and tell a ghost story of his own. He is not willing to do this as he is reminded of horrible events he hasexperienced as a very young man. Instead of telling what happened he decides to write it down.

As a young solicitor he was sent to Crythin Gifford. Mrs. Drablow an elderly client of the firm he is working for has died and his boss wants him to attend the funeral and spend some time sorting out the papers the old woman has left behind. It gets creepy early on as no one in the little town wants to talk about the deceased or her property. At the funeral Arthur sees a woman in black who looks very wasted as well as a group of children that no one else sees.

Later, at Eel Marsh House, the stately home of Mrs. Drablow, he sees the woman in black again. The estate is located on Nine Lives Causeway and is completely cut off from the mainland at high tide, surrounded only by the sea and marshes. The setting alone would creep out many but Arthur also  hears terrible noises, the cries of a child,  noises as if someone had an accident in the marshes. It is also spooky inside of the house. He feels he is not alone. There is one room he doesn’t have access to but there are distinct noises coming from  inside and when the door stands ajar all of a sudden he almost freaks out.

After his first stay at the house he goes back despite his fears and it gets worse. The incidents culminate.

Like in The Small Hand the story is resolved in the end. We get to hear who is the ghost and why he haunts people. The spite- and vengeful being will not stop to haunt Arthur after his departure. It strikes again.

The Woman in Black is a dark tale, darker than The Small Hand. As a whole I think I liked The Small Hand better. But the beginning of The Woman in Black, the chapter titled “Christmas Eve” is one of the most pleasant initial chapters I have ever read and stands in striking contrast to the events that are narrated later.

Apparently the novel has been adapted for the stage and been made into a TV movie.

Has anyone read both? Which one did you prefer?


Nymeth’s review

Daniel Glattauer: Love Virtually (2011) aka Gut gegen Nordwind (2006) A German Novel in E-Mails

Love Virtually

“Write to me, Emmi. Writing is like kissing, but without lips. Writing is kissing with the mind.’

It begins by chance: Leo receives emails in error from an unknown woman called Emmi. Being polite he replies, and Emmi writes back. A few brief exchanges are all it takes to spark a mutual interest in each other, and soon Emmi and Leo are sharing their innermost secrets and longings. The erotic tension simmers, and it seems only a matter of time before they will meet in person. But they keep putting off the moment – the prospect both excites and unsettles them. And after all, Emmi is happily married. Will their feelings for each other survive the test of a real-life encounter?

And if so, what then?

Love Virtually is a funny, fast-paced and utterly absorbing novel, with plenty of twists and turns, about a love affair conducted entirely by email.

I have already read Love Virtually because the original came out in Germany in 2006. I even read it in hardback, a rare thing, as I was so curious to find out what the hype was all about. I must say, I have not often been this engrossed. You start it, you read and you do not stop before the end. After, let’s say, two –  three pages you will have forgotten that this is a novel, you will be sure that you are reading a real e-mail exchange between two people. That is quite an achievement. I am really  pleased to see that Glattauer’s book will be published in English in 2011.

Emmi writes accidentally to Leo and they keep on writing to each other because each one likes the tone of the other’s e-mails. And because they both imagine each other. Without knowing each other they develop crushes. There is only one little complication. Emmi is happily married. It seems only natural she does not want to meet Leo. What if he was anything like the man she imagines? Still she can’t stop writing. They tease and flirt and exchange their hidden dreams and wishes and get to know each other better and better. They also arrange a date without really meeting each other. They just both know that they are at the same restaurant at the same time. Later they compare their impressions and try to find out if they  did recognize each other.

Leo and Emmi are both  intellectuals. This is important to know, as that determines the nature of their exchange. Even though they tease and flirt, they philosophize and analyze a great deal too.

If you want to find out if they really meet you have to read the novel. Daniel Glattauer wrote a sequel (Alle sieben Wellen 2009) that has been published a while back. It is also very good but I would have preferred if he had stopped after Gut gegen Nordwind. The ending of Love Virtually is very special. The sequel spoils it.

I think the idea of having a crush on someone you only know by e-mail (I know the movie with Meg Ryan, but Love Virtually is very different) is interesting and Glattauer provides an in-depth analysis of this premiss. Love Virtually is highly entertaining but still deep. Personally I like epistolary novels a great deal. This is just a variation on the same theme.

A word on the English marketing of this book. Just have a look at the German cover. Don’t you think it looks much nicer? I can understand that the title was problematic. Gut gegen Nordwind would have to be translated as “Good against the North wind”. This is far more poetical than Love Virtually but does this mean anything outside of Germany? The North wind is a bit like the Californian Santa Ana winds, but cold, very cold. He does also carry a nervous energy and is a bit depressing. I must admit, I am not sure I would have bought the book with the title Love Virtually and such a cover. What do you think about the covers and the titles?

Desperate Romantics (2009) The Miniseries on the Pre-Raphaelites

Do you know this feeling, you love something so much you don’t even want to watch or read the last bit to make it last? And then, because you like it too much, you rush through it and then… It is over. That is how I felt with Desperate Romantics. I think this is the best mini-series I have ever seen. It had everything I like. Art, 19 century London, dark alleys, pre-technology, beautiful interiors, idealism, eccentrics, intellectuals, beauty, passion, tragedy… I admire the work of the Pre-Raphaelites. I do love their paintings. John Millais´ Ophelia has haunted me since I can think (yes, I know Reviving Ophelia…).

The series starts way before Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who is the leader of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, has come to any fame. Hunt and Millais are the famous ones. Especially Millais. But Millais hasn’t painted his Ophelia yet so his greatest achievement is still to come.

One day a young journalist, knowing that the brotherhood is always on the look-out for models, sees the young  and beautiful Elizabeth Siddal in a shop. He tells the brotherhood about her and from the moment they lay eyes on her, all their fates will change for ever. Lizzie will become the Pre-Raphaelites´most famous model, the model for Millais´ Ophelia, she will become Rossetti’s muse and lover and she will become the protegé of John Ruskin the eminent art critic. It was one of her greatest wishes to paint herself and Rossetti teaches her.

Lizzie is a tragic figure. She is desperately in love with Rossetti who is all but faithful. Most models are young and extremely good-looking prostitutes. To be surrounded by them is a temptation for a week man like Rossetti.

Apart from following the story closely, Desperate Romantics captures the atmosphere and translates the intensity of the brotherhood and their life into something that is understandable for us today. These guys rock, as we would say today. I think the score that is very modern but still fitting contributes to make this such great viewing. Even though it is intense and tragic at times, it is also a very funny series. Millais was apparently a great painter but silly and very naive. We also encounter Dickens and learn a lot about the Victorian society. The Pre-Raphaelites were true non-conformists. They were excessive and experimented with drugs and explored alternative lifestyles. A bit like the hippies later.

I liked it so much that I am not even sure if I will watch it again, if you know what I mean.

I will certainly start those two books very soon:

Desperate Romantics by Fanny Moyle and

Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel by Lucinda Hawksley

I few years ago I read  a novel by the French writer Philippe Delerm, Autumn. I´m afraid it has not been translated and that is a shame as it captures the world of the Pre-Raphaelites so well and describes it in a  haunting and very poetical manner.

Susan Hill: The Small Hand (2010) A Ghost Story

Returning home from a visit to a client late one summer’s evening, antiquarian bookseller Adam Snow takes a wrong turning and stumbles across the derelict old White House. Compelled by curiosity, he approaches the door, and, standing before the entrance feels the unmistakable sensation of a small hand creeping into his own, ‘as if a child had taken hold of it’. Intrigued by the encounter, he determines to learn more, and discovers that the owner’s grandson had drowned tragically many years before. At first unperturbed by the odd experience, Snow begins to be plagued by haunting dreams, panic attacks, and more frequent visits from the small hand which become increasingly threatening and sinister …

I really bought The Small Hand with the R.I.P challenge in mind when I found it at a local bookstore. And because I love the cover and had wanted to read something  by Susan Hill anyway. I enjoyed it quite a lot. It is beautifully written but surprisingly old-fashioned in tone. It is quite an eerie and mysterious ghost story. What I appreciated is the fact that the mystery is solved in the end.

The Small Hand has quite a lot to offer. Adam Snow being a bookseller every book lover will feel a certain affinity right away. What sounds more enchanting than a job that involves travelling the world and looking for rare books? One of his trips brings Adam to the South of England. On his way back he gets lost and discovers an abandoned house with an overgrown garden. This is not exactly an original idea, especially not in a British novel as the British novel has a great tradition of descriptions of grand old  houses and mysterious gardens (from Great Expectations to The Secret Garden, Tom’s Midnight Garden to The Forgotten Garden and many more). The lack of originality did not disturb me one tiny bit as I love descriptions of old houses and descriptions of gardens that return to a state of wilderness. Susan Hill is very talented in describing nature with great detail. It is in this very garden that Adam feels for the first time the presence of the ghost of a little child.

Ghosts are normally bound to certain places but this one is not. It will haunt Adam all through the story and wherever he goes. Telling more would be a spoiler so I will stop here.

On one of his hunts for rare old books, a First Edition of Shakespeare in this case, Adam travels to a forlorn French monastery. This is another extremely well rendered description. And such an appealing one. I would love to spend a few weeks there myself.

I think this book could be quite scary for some readers especially if they have a history of recent panic attacks as this is the way Adam experiences the presence of the ghost or rather ghosts.

The Small Hand is a wonderfully old-fashioned and very British (a high compliment coming from a fervent Anglophile) Ghost Story creating a pleasant frisson. It is best read at this time of the year, preferably at night in bed.

I have already ordered The Woman in Black, another of Susan Hill’s Ghost Stories. What Susan Hill novels did you read and like?

Here’s another review of The Small Hand by Susan Hated Literature

Ian McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers (1981)

As their holiday unfolds, Colin and Maria are locked into their own intimacy. They groom themselves meticulously, as though there waits someone who cares deeply about how they appear. Then, they meet a man with a disturbing story to tell and become drawn into a fantasy of violence and obsession.

I can’t forget The Comfort of Strangers. It keeps on haunting me.

This is not a novel, I liked. The world McEwan unleashes is too gloomy, too disgusting. Even though I didn’t like the novel  I am fascinated how obstinately  it stays in my mind, and even in my feelings.

I truly enjoyed Atonement. It did stay with me for a very long time as well. When you are engrossed in a novel that you enjoy you don’t pay so much attention to the skills of the author. You are just enchanted by the feelings he evokes in you. McEwan is one of the most renowned British writers and when reading a book like The Comfort of Strangers, that you do not even like but that still resonates in your mind, you know why he gets so much praise.

The Comfort of strangers narrates the stay of a young English couple in Venice. There is something sinister from the very beginning. The way McEwan describes the city gives the impression as if Venice was a lurking animal. The Venice he describes is neither idyllic nor romantic; on the very contrary. His description of those labyrinthine, narrow streets that make orientation difficult, of those alleys whose walls tower too high to permit an overwiew, is unsettling.  I was reminded of the movie Don’t Look Now. The young English couple is described as if they knew each other too well.  They don’t talk much, they drift and only barely escape deadly boredom. It is not exactly clear why but all of a sudden their  sexuality changes radically. They are suddenly drawn to more violent, sadomasochistic lovemaking.  On one of their nightly forays they meet a mysterious local man who takes them to his own restaurant where they drink far too much. On their way back to the hotel they get lost and wait on some doorstep till dawn approaches. As if out of nowhere the man reappears and takes them home where he introduces them to his wife. His wife seems to be an ailing invalid. They don’t know it, but from the moment they meet these two people they are doomed.

McEwan’s slim novel touches many topics: relationships, love, power, sadomasochism, people abroad, Venice,  disorientation, voyeurism. The list is almost endless. On top of that McEwan´s writing is scarce, concise, and very atmospherical and visual.

The Comfort of Strangers is not a pleasing novel, but one that shows you what good literature is capable of.

Are there any books that you did not like but still consider to be very fascinating?

Ruth Rendell: A Judgement in Stone (1977)

Four members of the Coverdale family – George, Jacqueline, Melinda and Giles – died in the space of fifteen minutes on the 14th February, St Valentine’s Day. Eunice Parchman, the housekeeper, shot them down on a Sunday evening while they were watching opera on television. Two weeks later she was arrested for the crime. But the tragedy neither began nor ended there.

I discovered this novel  thanks to a suggestion from Danielle from A Work in Progress. I have read a few books of Ruth Rendell before and liked them and  I also read one she wrote under the pen name Barbara Vine but didn’t know which to read next. It is always good with prolific writers if someone can make a suggestion. I really liked A Judgement in Stone and can see why it is considered to be one of her best. It takes a very good writer to be able to captivate a reader even though the victims and the murderer are known from the very beginning. The psychological insights are absolutely convincing. Each character is so different from the other and they are all quite fascinating. Rendell adds a lot about the British class system and her description of two completely deranged women is amazing.

Because we know from the start that the main characters will be killed the book has an eery quality. It reminded me of a Greek tragedy. There is nothing to stop the course of the action.

Eunice Parchman, a middle-aged, illiterate and not very intelligent woman starts her employment with the Coverdales in summer. On Valentine’s Day she kills them. The changing of the seasons that Rendell describes with great detail adds to the feeling of the inevitable. The narrator is very present in this story, he misses no occasion to remind us, that the people he describes will meet a certain death. This reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

Eunice is not only illiterate she also lacks feelings for others. There is not the tiniest bit of empathy in this woman. Since she can’t read and sees this as a great flaw she abhors the written word and those who like to read. The Coverdales, a typical British upper class family, love to read. There are books all over their house. Eunice tries to cover up her disability as best she can and gets herself in a lot of impossible situations. One day, when running errands, she meets Joan Smith, a former prostitute who has joined some obscure Christian sect. One woman is as deranged as the other. Eunice is a cold-hearted selfish sociopath and the other a fanatic psychopath. Their alliance can only bring misfortunes.

Rendell’s  book is gripping, psychologically convincing and utterly fascinating. I’m really in the mood to read more of her books.

A Judgement in Stone has twice been made into a movie. One of them is by Claude Chabrol, La Cérémonie, starring Sandrine Bonnaire as Eunice and Isabelle Huppert as Joan.