Maria Àngels Anglada: The Auschwitz Violin – El violi’ d’Auschwitz (1994) Literature and War Readalong October 2012

Is there anything that would make life in a concentration camp bearable? Anything that could make it worth living? Is it justified that talent will help you survive? And if you do, how can you go on living? Maria Àngels Anglada’s short and powerful novel The Auschwitz Violin – El violí d’Auschwitz asks precisely these questions.

When Climent, a famous violinist, is invited to Krakow in 1991 for a concert, he meets the elderly Polish violinist Regina who plays on an exquisite violin. He is intrigued, he thinks he should know the luthier but, as he is told, he doesn’t. He is curious and she is keen to share the story of the beautiful instrument. The violin has been made by Daniel, Regina’s uncle, a luthier who was sent to Auschwitz. Regina was only a small girl then. She had lost her parents in the ghetto but was saved and spent the war with a non-Jewish family who let her pass as their daughter.

Daniel who is still a young man, is only saved and not exterminated right away with many others because he pretends to be a carpenter. He helps to build a greenhouse for the sadistic and despotic camp Commander and later, when the commander finds out that he is a luthier, he is ordered to build a violin for him. Another captive, Bronislaw, will have to play on it during one of the dinners the Commander gives for other Nazis. Both their lives depend on Daniel’s success. If he wasn’t such a talented and passionate luthier, he wouldn’t stand a chance to make such a delicate instrument, with hands that are rough and split from the cold and material that is far from perfect.

Working on the violin changes everything for Daniel. It isn’t only a means to survive, like helping with the greenhouse was, but it gives sense to his days, makes a human being out of him again.

The way his workshop in Poland  is described and how he makes the new violin, with so much care and love, infuses this book with beauty, despite the horrors which are evoked as well.

Every chapter begins with a quote from a historical official document in which life in the camp is rendered in a statistical and factual manner. There are reports about shootings, about medical experiments and other atrocities. This adds another layer to the book, echoes the horrors Daniel has to endure and stands in stark contrast to the beauty he experiences while remembering his old life and crafting the violin.

When the instrument is finished, Bronislaw, the violinist, plays Corelli’s Sonata “La Folia” on it. Schindler, a passing figure in the novel, tells someone about Bronislaw and he is freed and brought to Sweden.

It’s a beautifully written book but a bit light at times. I don’t know if working on an instrument would really have transformed the days at the camp like this.

The idea that two people can better their lives, maybe even save it, because of their talents struck me as cruel but realistic. It’s certainly true that those with special talents had a higher chance to live longer or even survive. What does that say about us humans.? Do we always need a reason to help? Talent, looks, frailty, illness, as long as there is something different and special. The thought made me shudder because it’s at the core of so much injustice in this world, not only in the concentration camps.

Since Corelli’s Sonata “La Folia” is so important in the book, I attached a recording. It’s a very haunting piece.

The Auschwitz Violin manages to capture the horror’s of the concentration camps without being horrifying. I think Anglada wanted to tell us that there can be beauty in the most horrible places. I hope that’s true.

Other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

 

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The Auschwitz Violin was the tenth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Gert Ledig’s The Stalin FrontDie Stalinorgel. Discussion starts on Friday  30 November, 2012.

Some Background Information on Jakob Wassermann’s Newly Translated My First Wife

A recent excellent review of Jakob Wassermann’s novel My First Wife (just published by Penguin Classics) by Tom (A Common Reader) led me to hunt for the book in German. You know the feeling, you read a review and you think: “I want to read this now!” or rather not “now” but”NOW”. Only, I couldn’t find the German book. It took me quite a while to figure out which novel this was and only the review in the guardian which mentioned that My First Wife was “carved out” of another novel, solved the mystery.

I have inherited quite a lot of books of my late grandmother and a few of them are by Jakob Wassermann (1873 – 1934), an author widely read and admired until the 50s but then, I would say, slowly forgotten. I wouldn’t know of anyone, not even in Germany or Switzerland, who knows or even read him. What kept me from reading his books is the fact they are substantial. When I read Tom’s review I was pleased to see that there was one shorter novel to be discovered but I was wrong.

My first Wife doesn’t exist in German. The novel is a part of the much longer novel Joseph Kerkhoven’s Third Existence, which is part III of a 1600 pages long trilogy. Part I is The Case Maurizius, Part II Etzel Andergast. The Case Maurizius or Der Fall Maurizius which was published 1928 is considered to be his masterpiece and I hope it will be retranslated soon. It was a great success when it was published, Henry Miller was very fond of it.

According to the blog jakob wasserman, a blog which is entirely dedicated to the German author, many of his novels have been translated but are long out of print.

Judging from Tom’s review, The First Wife works very well as a standalone novel. I’m not going to discuss here whether I think it is legitimate or not to publish a part of a novel, which is part of a trilogy, as a standalone. I just thought I might be able to save other German reader’s the trouble to hunt for something that doesn’t exist in this form in German.

The best news for German readers however is that all of Jakob Wassermann’s novels are available free for the kindle. I’m very tempted to read the part which is called My First Wife in English and have already downloaded Joseph Kerkhovens dritte Existenz.

English readers who are still looking for something to read for German Literature Month may consider My First Wife, it seems a great choice.

Here’s the blurb but don’t hesitate to visit Tom’s blog and read his review.

It is the story of Alexander Herzog, a young writer, who goes to Vienna to escape his debts and a failed love affair. There he is pursued by book-loving Ganna: giddy, girlish, clumsy, eccentric and wild. Dazzled and unnerved by her devotion to him, and attracted to the large dowry offered by her wealthy father, he thinks he can mould Ganna into what he wants. But no-one can control her troubling passions. As their marriage starts to self-destruct, Herzog will discover that Ganna has resources and determination of which he had no idea – and that he can never escape her.

Posthumously published in 1934 and based on the author Jakob Wassermann’s own ruinous marriage, My First Wife bears the unmistakable aura of true and bitter experience. It is a tragic masterpiece that unfolds in shocking detail. Now this story of rare intensity and drama is brought to English readers in a powerful new translation by Michael Hofmann.

Reviews:

‘Like something out of Chekhov – it’s all there, the ennui, the preening etiquette, the intellectual posturing … painfully heartfelt … My First Wife is a devastating indictment of the choices we make out of convenience against our hearts and instincts, and the tragedies that ensue’ Independent

‘You won’t find a more agonising, fascinating literary account of a marriage hitting the rocks’ Mail Online

 

Ray Bradbury: The Halloween Tree (1972)

ON HALLOWEEN NIGHT, eight trick-or-treaters gather at the haunted house by the edge of town, ready for adventure. But when Something whisks their friend Pip away, only one man, the sinister Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud, can help the boys find him.

It’s been such a long time since I’ve read my last Ray Bradbury novel. When I was a teenager I devoured almost all of his books. The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Illustrated Man. There were only two of the major novels I haven’t read, one of which is Fahrenheit 451 (yes, I know, a huge omission) and the other one The Halloween Tree.

I hadn’t been thinking of Bradbury that much until I read that he has died this year. If this hadn’t happened I might not have felt like picking one of his novels right now. The Halloween Tree has been on my TBR pile for a long time and it’s almost the end of October; it seemed like a good final choice for R.I.P. VII.

The first thing that struck me was how original and descriptive his writing is. I re-read so many of the sentences, I suppose I already read the whole book twice. It is full of passages and sentences like these

And it was the afternoon of Halloween. And all the houses shut against a cool wind. And the town was full of cold sunlight.
But suddenly, the day was gone. Night came out from under each tree and spread.

The wind outside nested in each tree, prowled the sidewalks in invisible treads like unseen cats.

On the night of Halloween eight boys in costumes gather to go trick-or-treating. One of their friends, Pipkin, isn’t ready yet and tells them to go and wait for him, outside of the town, near a well-known haunted house.

Until they stood at last by a crumbling wall, looking up and up and still farther up at the great tombyard top of the old house. For that’s what it seemed. The high mountain peak of the mansion was littered with what looked like black bones or iron rods, and enough chimneys to choke out smoke signals from three dozen fires on sooty hearths hidden far below in dim bowels of this monster place. With so many chimneys, the roof seemed a vast cemetery, each chimney signifying the burial place of some old god of fire or enchantress of steam, smoke, and firefly spark. even as they watched, a kind of bleak exhalation of soot breathed up out of some four dozen flues, darkening the sky still more, and putting out some few stars.

They wait but Pipkin doesn’t show up. Instead a mysterious man shows an takes them on a journey through history, starting with ancient Egypt at the time of the construction of the pyramids, from there he takes them to the Celts, to medieval Paris, the Europe of the witch hunts and finally Mexico on the Día des los muertos. Their trip, which they undertake on broomsticks, is an introduction to the secrets and history of Halloween, its meaning, its source, the way it changed through the ages until it became the almost meaningless contemporary trick-or-treating custom. Their journey introduces them not only to the secrets of Halloween but to Death, the source of it all. And while they follow the man from one time period to the next, enchanted, thrilled and a little scared, the boy Pipkin appears in different forms. At the end it looks as if this hadn’t only been an exploration but that the journey was an attempt to free their friend of the claws of Death who already tried to grab him.

The book is an exhilarating wonderful ride. It’s fantastic and enchanting and I loved reading it. The writing is wonderful. I’m glad I rediscovered an author I had almost forgotten. Reading Ray Bradbury so shortly after Neil Gaiman, I would say that he, like so many others, must have been heavily influenced by Bradbury.

Which Is your favourite Ray Bradbury book?

The review of The Halloween Tree is a contribution to Carl’s R.I.P. VII Challenge. Don’t miss to visit the review site.

Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book (2008) Readalong Part III

Last week I wrote about chapters 4 – 6 of  Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, this week we have read the final chapters 7 and 8.

It was obvious that the man Jack would be back and also that he would be part of the final episodes. What wasn’t entirely clear but was revealed in the final chapters was why he was after Bod’s family. This is where The Graveyard Book turns almost into a Greek tragedy. In order to prevent something that is predicted, the man Jack commits a crime but, as is the case in the Greek tragedies, fails and the murder itself sets in motion his own undoing. Ironic really.

The final confrontation with the man Jack was something I expected and I wasn’t too surprised, still there are many surprises in the final chapters. I was wondering from the beginning how the book would end in terms of Bod’s development and future. Would he forever stay with his ghost family and friends? Would he start to follow Silas on his trips? Would Miss Lupescu show him how to become like her?All these were possibilities and I was keen on finding out which solution Gaiman had chosen. The end isn’t exactly like I expected it. I thought it was almost a bit sad. I know, I’m allowed to, as this is a readalong post, still, I don’t feel like spoiling the book, so I won’t say more.

There is something I like about Neil Gaiman’s books and stories and that is that he often provides a lot of information on how he his novels and stories came to be, what inspired him, where he wrote them.

As I said in my first post, The Graveyard Book is strongly influenced by The Jungle Book but one of the very first inspirations came, as he writes, from watching his then two year-old son riding his tricycle between the graves of a cemetery. He finally started the book with chapter four and if his daughter hadn’t wanted to know what would happen next, he would have stopped there.  Tori Amos is one of the people he mentions in the Acknowledgment section. He also adds some lines from her song Graveyard. I can only assume it inspired him too. It’s a very short piece. You can listen to it on YouTube.

I’m not sure which will be my next Gaiman. I guess either Coraline or American Gods.

I read The Graveyard Book for Carl’s readalong which is part of  R.I.P. VII.  If you want to read what other’s thought, don’t miss visiting Carl’s blog for the other reviews.

Wednesdays Are Wunderbar – German Literature Month Giveaway – Job by Joseph Roth

Initially we had planned two giveaways for  German Literature Month but now, thanks to the generosity of another editor, there is additional one today.

I’m particularly pleased as this gives me the opportunity to introduce archipelago books who are offering the title for this giveaway. Archipelago books have one of the most interesting catalogs of literature in translation I have seen so far. They offer great titles from all over the world.

I also really love their motto

a not-for-profit literary press dedicated to promoting cross-cultural exchange through international literature in translation

If you don’t know them yet it’s worth having a look at their site. Some of their books are prize winners, also in the category “Best translation”.

For German Literature Month I have the opportunity to give away one copy of one of the classics of Austrian literature, Joseph Roth’s Job.

Job is the tale of Mendel Singer, a pious, destitute Eastern-European Jew and children’s Torah teacher whose faith is tested at every turn. His youngest son seems to be incurably disabled, one of his older sons joins the Russian Army, the other deserts to America, and his daughter is running around with a Cossack. When he flees with his wife and daughter, further blows of fate await him. In this modern fable based on the biblical story of Job, Mendel Singer witnesses the collapse of his world, experiences unbearable suffering and loss, and ultimately gives up hope and curses God, only to be saved by a miraculous reversal of fortune.

As you can see, this is a novel that comes with high praise.

“A beautifully written, and in the end uplifting, parable for an era of upheaval . . . Job, opened to any page, offers something of beauty. . . Ross Benjamin’s excellent new translation gives us both the realism and the poetry.”
The Quarterly Conversation
“The totality of Joseph Roth’s work is no less than a tragédie humaineachieved in the techniques of modern fiction.”
Nadine Gordimer
“Joseph Roth was a permanent novelist. His Job was a worthy precursor of that masterpiece [The Radetzky March] . . . [Job is] both immensely sorrowful and finally strangely hopeful.
Harold Bloom
Jobis more than a novel and legend, it is a pure, perfect poetic work, which is destined to outlast everything that we, his contemporaries, have created and written. In unity of construction, in depth of feeling, in purity, in the musicality of the language, it can scarcely be surpassed.”
Stefan Zweig
“This life of an everyday man moves us as if someone had written of our lives, our longings, our struggles. Roth’s language has the discipline and rigor of German Classicism. A great and harrowing book that no one can resist.”
Ernst Toller
“Job is perfect. . . . a novel as lyric poem.”
Joan Acocella
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If you are interested in reading this book, just leave a comment.

The competition is US only. The winner will be announced on Monday October 22 2012.

Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book (2008) Readalong Part II

Last week I wrote about chapters 1 -3 of  Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, this week we have read chapters 4 – 6.

I’m glad to report that I’m still enjoying the book a lot. The structure is less episodic now, some elements return and we already know that the man Jack who killed Bod’s whole family is still around and hasn’t given up.  Bod meets new people in these chapters and one of the most important is a witch. She may be one of my favourite characters and the relationship between the two is quite touching. But there is more. The story of the witch illustrates that there is a very interesting historical dimension to this book which could be overread but it’s present and very well done. The witch is in a part of the graveyard where people lie who have no gravestones, because they were suicides or otherwise cast out by the church. In a place in which gravestones play such a prominent role, to be without one, is like being bereft of your identity. The witch is very sad about this fact and Bod, who is a truly goodhearted little boy, tries to buy her a tombstone. Unfortunately this very nice thought brings not only a lot of trouble but at the end of the whole undertaking, the man Jack is informed that the little baby he couldn’t kill has turned into a boy and is still alive.

An element which didn’t strike me at first is how the many inhabitants of the graveyard are often presented. Gaiman gives us the inscriptions of their headstones like in this example “Majella Godspeed, Spinster of his Parish, 1791 – 1870, Lost to All but Memory”. When you’ve read half a dozen of these the effect is quite uncanny. It looks as if all that is left of us is our name, our dates, and -when we are lucky – an inscription that is poetical and wise and not one that is unintentionally funny.

In these chapters Bod gets into trouble more than once and what is sad is the fact that it is always when he tries to help others. But we do also discover another side of Bod. He has truly become a person who is able to move between the living and the dead and to use their respective talents. One of the scenes I enjoyed the most is when he uses his skills to haunt two particularly nasty children.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest now which will probably be this afternoon. It’s cool outside and rainy, the perfect weather for a book like this.

I’m reading The Graveyard Book for Carl’s readalong which is part of  R.I.P. VII.  If you want to read other’s thoughts, don’t miss visiting Carl’s blog for the other reviews.