Gert Ledig: The Stalin Front – Die Stalinorgel (1955) Literature and War Readalong Meets German Literature Month November 2012

The Stalin Front is one of the most unsparingly honest accounts of the Eastern Front. It’s accurate and graphic in its depiction of the horrors of the battle field. The wounds, the cold, the fear and the utter uselessness of it all is captured in spare prose. It’s hard to find another novel which is as explicitly anti-war as this book. Interestingly it is exactly this unpolitical but strong anti-war statement for which Ledig would be criticized later. In his book there are no beastly Nazis or inhuman Russians, but living, breathing, suffering humans, some German, some Russian. At the end of the day, it’s not important. What is important is to show that war is awful, that it saves nobody, literally rips apart the “good” and the “bad” alike and turns each party into a suffering mess.

Ledig chose a rather impersonal way to tell his story. Most of the people in this novel have no name – with the exception of the Russian officers – but are introduced with their ranks. This makes it easier to follow them and also helps to keep the story at arm’s length at first. Later in the story, with little remarks here and there, which reveal the men’s unique stories and characters, we start to see them not only as ranks but as individuals. There is for example the Major whose every hope is crushed when he is informed that his wife and only child have died.

The central story, set during two days, somewhere near Stalingrad, focuses on the defense of a hill. This is a totally futile and senseless thing to do. The Germans can’t keep the hill, their lines have been broken through by the Russian tanks but the orders are clear; they have to stay. The losses on both sides are equally heavy, morales are low everywhere.

I was afraid The Stalin Front would be hard to read but it wasn’t. It was a surprisingly quick read and although it is very graphic it was bearable because Ledig isn’t a manipulative writer. It’s much more as if he had painted with words and I was often reminded of the work of Anselm Kiefer.

Ledig’s book was successful when it came out but soon forgotten because it was considered too dark, too bleak. There is no hope in this book, no heroic figures, there isn’t even right or wrong, just suffering and futility. The absurdity is underlined by small things. Seeing the tanks approach and knowing there would be certain death, many of the men try to escape. Some cross the line and flee to the Russians, others desert or simply look for an outpost which is farther away from the front line. Doing this without explicit order is like deserting. Although everything collapses, the hill is lost, most of the men will die, the high command gives stupid orders like fighting to the last moment and has people who try to save their lives courtmartialled.

The Stalin Front has been compared to All Quiet on the Western Front and I agree, it is equally good but even less sentimental as Ledig chose to have more than a handful of main characters and did not just focus on one person. This makes identification more difficult but I was glad for that. It may sound weird but I really liked this book. I think it’s important and should be much more widely read. No matter what reasons contribute to starting it, ultimately, war is ugly for all the parties involved. The Stalin Front exemplifies this eloquently and forcefully.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

Richard (Caravana de recuerdos)

Rise (in lieu of a field guide) – not part of the readalong per se but worth reading all the same.


The Stalin Front was the eleventh book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Michael Herr’s Dispatches. Discussion starts on Friday 28 December, 2012.

German Literature Month – Week IV Links

Another amazing week for German Literature Month. The final wrap up post is due in a week or so as Lizzy has decided to extend the month. 

All those of you still want to contribute or finish a book, feel free to do so and join her. There will be a final wrap-up post and a link list next week as well.

Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué (A Work in Progress)

Grimm Readathon 2012: Meet me at Hanau (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

No Place on Earth by Christa Wolf (Tony’s Reading List)

Unformed Landscape by Peter Stamm (Vishy’s Blog)

Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler (Tales from the Reading Room)

The Story of the Hard Nut by E.T.A. Hoffmann (The Reading Life)

Grimm Readathon from Hauna to Kassel (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

My First Wife by Jakob Wassermann (Gaskella)

Demian by Hermann Hesse (Babbling Books)

Grimm Readathon: From kassel to Fürstenberg (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

Brenner and God by Wolf Haas (His Futile Preoccupations)

Ich sehe was, was Du nicht siehst by Birgit Vanderbeke (Tony’s Reading List)

The Weekend by Berhard Schlink (Vishy’s Blog)

Grimm Readathon: From Fürstenberg to Bremen (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

The Tale of the Honest Caspar and Fair Annie by Clemens Brentano (A Work in Progress)

Crime & Guilt by Ferdinand von Schirach (A Fiction Habit)

After Midnight by Irmgard Keun (chasing bawa)

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin (Tony’s Reading List)

Grimm Readathon 2012 Meets Book Week Scotland (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

Wonderful, Wonderful Times by Elfriede Jelinek (St. Orberose)

Schnitzler and Stoppard collaborate (Wuthering Expectations)

Forbidden – Ostracized – Banned German Women Writers Under National Socialism (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller (Winstonsdad’s Blog)

Amerika by Franz Kafka (A Hot Cup of Pleasure)

Sci-Fi Stories by German Authors (Slightly Cultural, Most Thoughtful and Inevitably Irrelevant)

The Pharmacist by Ingrid Noll (A Work in Progress)

Another Schnitzler – Stoppard Play (Wuthering Expectations)

Siddharta by Hermann Hesse (Tabula Rasa)

The Gordian Knot by Bernhard Schlink (Winstonsdad’s Blog)

This Wednesday is Wunderbar GLM extension (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

The Reader by Bernard Schlink (Iris on Books)

Forbidden – Ostracized – Banned – German Women Writers Under National Socialism

Edda Ziegler’s fantastic book on German women writers under National Socialism Verboten – Verfemt – Vertrieben (Forbidden – Ostracized – Banned) was easily my favourite read this year. I hope that some English language editor will buy the rights to this book and have it translated. It’s an introduction to the most prominent German women writers under National Socialism, a detailed historical account of the times and an analysis of publishing history.

Edda Ziegler is a professor of German Literature and non-fiction writer. Unlike some academics she manages to write in an engaging way and still offers a world of information.

The book is divided into 7 chapters which are dedicated to different aspects of the life of women writers before and after National Socialism. Each chapter contains stories of different writers and at least three more elaborate biographies as examples.

Chapter 1 looks at the so-called Asphaltliteratur, just before 1933. Vicki Baum, Mascha Kaleko and Irmgard Keun are the chosen examples. Asphaltliteratur was a term applied by the Third Reich to denigrate modern literature “without value”, meaning not popular and nationalist enough. The three writers were successful before the Nazis came to power and stayed relatively successful and famous until today. Vicki Baum fled to the US very early where she led quite a glamorous life. These women were considered to write “Unterhaltungsliteratur” – literature of escapism – because they wrote about the life of women. Edda Ziegler shows very well, that it was far more difficult for German women to be taken seriously as writers as for men. The situation was very different in England or the US.

Chapter 2 is dedicated to those writers whose books were burned by the Nazis, like Annette Kolb, Erika Mann and Gertrud Kolmar.

Chapter 3 looks into the ways that lead women into exile. Prominent examples are Else Lasker-Schüler, Grete Weil, Veza Canetti and Hermynia Zur-Mühlen. This was one of the most gripping chapters. Many writers dedicated themselves to help others flee. There are some astonishing acts of heroism mentioned. Varian Fry, an American journalist, is mentioned quite often. Together with German authors, like Lisa Fittko who wrote a memoir about this time, he helped numerous authors to flee from France to unoccupied Morocco and the US and the UK. After 1933, many emigtared to the Netherlands and France but when the war broke out that wasn’t safe anymore. Some emigrated to the UK and the US, Anna Seghers and some other communist writers went to Mexico.

Chapter 4 is dedicated to life in exile. Gina Kaus, Hertha Narthorff and the women around Bertolt Brecht (Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin, Ruth Berlau) illustrate this aspect. Some authors like the Manns were able to make the most of life in exile and there were some interesting author’s colonies in the US.

Chapter 5 tells about the trauma for writers to lose their native language. Anna Seghers, the writers in the concentration camp Gurs and Nelly Sachs are mentioned in-depth. Erika Mann was one of the rare examples who started writing in English but many of the others struggled incredibly. And even if they managed after a while, it was hard and the loss was always felt.

Chapter 6 contains examples of women who went into an interior exile. Ricarda Huch and Marieluise Fleisser are the two examples. These women simply withdrew from life around them and lived apart and on their own.

Chapter 7 which is called “estranged” looks into life after 1945. Some women returned to Germany, many stayed abroad. The biographies of Hilde Domin and Rose Ausländer exemplify these two possibilities.

The book is written in an engaging way, many of the biographies are incredibly tragic but most are testimonies of astonishing resilience. Edda Ziegler has managed to get rid of the myth of the helpless German women writers. Most of her biographies show that women did cope far better in exile than men. They were more ingenious than their male colleagues. Contrary to what was generally believed, far less women committed suicide. Even before 1933 women writers were always forced to take care of their families,to assure that everyone was fed and clothed, they were used to survive writing and working in parallel. They even started to sew and type to make a living without making a fuss like so many of their husbands or partners.

The most tragic examples for me were those who were already elderly when the Nazis came to power and those who were incapable of learning another language. Even some women who emigrated to Palestine encountered these difficulties.

Sure, some women didn’t survive, the interior exile could become the last step before madness and a few women committed suicide but, overall, I think this book carries a message of hope. It shows us that women are capable of being active, creative and to survive under the most dreadful circumstances. Needless to say that I ended up with a long list of books I’d like to read. A few have been translated and some of those I’d like to mention here.

Anna Seghers who is famous for The Seventh Cross, wrote a book while she was in transit in the South of France. It is called Transit and seems to be one of the most accomplished accounts of this painful chapter of the life of those who left Germany. Fellow writers like Erich Weiss who tragically committed suicide in Paris when the Germans occupied the city are mentioned. The book had a somewhat turbulent history as Seghers who returned from exile to live in East Germany had added some criticism of communism. Transit will be reissued in May 2013 by the NYRB.

Hilde Spiel’s novel The Darkened Room (Lisas Zimmer) sounds like one of the most interesting ones and I hope to be able to read it soon. Set in New York it tells the story of various immigrants who cannot or do not want to return to Germany. Hilde Spiel was Austrian and spent the war years in London. She has published memoirs which all seem available in English as well.

Before ending this lengthy post I’d like to mention two very interesting parts which were dedicated to the wife of Elias Canetti, Veza Canetti, and the women around Bertolt Brecht like Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin and Ruth Berlau. These were very enlightening pieces as they showed those men in a less than favourable light. Brecht really didn’t apply any socialist ideas while he was reigning over his harem. While he had a sexual relationship with all of the women in the beginning of their relationship, he soon abandoned each woman for another one. The weird thing is, that they all stayed and worked for him. A lot of his writings should be attributed to the one or the other woman around him. Exile reinforced this dependency. Brecht preached “non-possession” and equality but this meant, de facto, that they all contributed to his work without any rights or without ever being thanked and mentioned.

I could write much more but I will stop here. I’ve mentioned a few of the important names, those who read German will easily find their books and some may be available in English too. The novels of Irmgard Keun and Vicki Baum, both successful then and now, are still available and highly recommended reading.

Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 (1953) Folio Society Edition

Yes, I know, it’s November and I should be reading German literature but…. After having read Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree in October I was so in the mood to read Fahrenheit 451 which was one of the few famous Bradbury novels I hadn’t read so far. What a coincidence that Jackie reviewed it a few weeks later. While she wasn’t too keen on the book I was still very tempted to read it right away and luckily someone saw my comment and a few days later I had a stunning Folio Society edition in my letterbox. It’s my first Folio Society book and it will not be my last. I love the nice paper and the illustrations by Sam Weber.

And the book? It’s not what I had expected. It’s so different from The Halloween Tree which is rich in descriptions and warm atmosphere. But I loved it anyway. It’s such a strange book, reading it felt a bit like walking around in a surreal dream.

Fahrenheit 451 is set in a dystopian future in which books are forbidden. If anyone is in possession of books, the firemen come to his home at night and burn it down. The job of the firemen in this novel is not to extinguish fire but to start it. They are feared but that doesn’t mean people let go of their books easily.

Montag is a fireman who secretly hides a few books. He doesn’t even read them and why he keeps them isn’t clear. It is something in his unconscious that pushes him to act this way. One evening when he returns home he meets Clarisse, a young girl. She is like nobody else he knows; she speaks with him, sees him, shows interest. What she tells him of her family is most unusual too. They sit together in the evenings and talk. Meeting her changes Montag in subtle ways and when she disappears he changes even more.

The society depicted in Fahrenheit 451 is a society in which real relationships are substituted by fake ones with people who are projected on walls in the living rooms of the houses. Giant TV screens replace real life, real experiences. It’s like a collective trance. Montag’s wife spends more time in front of those screens than she spends with her husband.

“Stuff your eyes with wonder, ” he said, “live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. and if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that, ” he said, “shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.”

I liked this book a lot for many reasons. I liked the haunting atmosphere and the images it created.  I also liked some of the characters like Clarisse. And there are other amazing elements. Most of the novel takes place at night, the people of this society are all isolated from each other, nobody shares anything, still they feel strongly but live life vicariously through the people on the screens. I’m not much of a TV watcher but I’ve heard people talk about things they saw on TV, series or reality TV, which made me think they were talking about real people. Depicting a society like this was very perceptive in 1953.

Fahrenheit 451 is not my favourite Bradbury but it’s an amazing book, one that is really worth reading.

Thanks again to the Folio Society for this lovely book.

German Literature Month – Week III Links

The enthusiasm for  German Literature Month is still amazing.

I think I’ve added all the links but let me know if one has escaped my attention.

Schnitzler’s Substitue for the Talking Cure (Wutherin Expectations)

Meet the Translator Sally-Ann Spencer (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth (Tony’s Reading List)

Schlink Week – Links (Reader in the Wilderness)

A Schlink Link – A Key to Understanding (Reader in the Wilderness)

Night Games – Schnitzler Stretches Out (Wuthering Expectations)

Tell me What You See by Zoran Drvenkar (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

The Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler (Wuthering Expectations)

The Swarm by Frank Schätzing and The Sweetness of Life by Paulus Hochgatterer (Farm Lane Books)

Summerhouse, Later by Judith Hermann (Tony’s Reading List)

Seven Years by Peter Stamm (Tony’s Book World)

Tell Me What You See by Zoran Drvenkar (Vishy’s Blog)

Talking of Romance… (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

Being German, Writing Fiction and the Holocaust (Reader in the Wilderness)

Final Words About Bernhard Schlink Week (Reader in the Wilderness)

Fräulein Else by Arthur Schnitzler (A Work in Progress)

Man of Straw by Heinrich Mann (His Futile Preoccupations)

Grimm’s Fairy Tales Day by Day (Read, Ramble)

Bunker by Andrea Maria Schenkel (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

Love Virtually by Daniel Glattauer (The Little Reader Library)

The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach (Vishy’s Blog)

Winters in the South by Norbert Gstrein (Winstonsdad’s Blog)

Mesmerized by Allissa Walser (50 Year Project)

Der Elfenbeinturm by Herbert W. Franke (Slightly Cultural, Most Thoughtful and Inevitably Irrelevant)

The Poetry of Trakl (Wuthering Expectations)

Zbinden’s Progress by Christoph Simon (everybookhasasoul)

This Wednesday is Wunderbar (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

Salzburg in Trakl’s Poems (Wuthering Expectations)

 All Roads Lead to Berlin (Tony’s Reading List) 

Andrea Maria Schenkel: Bunker (2009)

It had been a normal day at work. Monika was locking up, ready to head home, when the man arrived. She didn’t see his fist until it was far too late. Bundled into a car, tied up and taken in darkness to an old mill in the thick of a forest, she has been flung into a bunker. It is only now, as time passes and she sees her attacker in the light, that she notices the startling resemblance to someone from her very dark and buried past. Someone she never wanted to see again.

Andrea Maria Schenkel entered the literary crime scene with a big bang when her first novel  The Murder FarmTannöd was published in Germany. Based on a true story it described a crime which wiped out a whole family. While there were many glowing reviews there were also a lot who predicted she would be a one hit wonder. Fact is, she has written three more novels, two very different ones, Ice Cold – Kalteis and Bunker – Bunker, and a fourth one which hasn’t been translated yet – Finsterau -, which is written in the vein of Tannöd, but none has had the success of the first.

Bunker is a very unusual crime novel. It takes a long time to figure out what is going on as the POV occasionally changes two to three times per page. If the different points of view were not printed in different type, it would be nearly impossible to know who is telling the story. If you are an impatient person you might give up after a few pages. I decided to read until the end and must say, I don’t regret it. Instead of passively reading about the confusion of the victim, we share this confusion which was an interesting experience.

Monika is abducted from her work place, tied up, thrown into a car and driven to a mill in a dark forest. A bunker belongs to the mill and she is held captive there. The man hits and mishandles her but what he really wants is not clear.

After some time she feels she knows him. It seems to be someone she never wanted to see again and who was tied to the disappearance of her brother when she was still a teenager.

The relationship between Monika and her attacker changes constantly. While he hits her one moment, he takes care of her the next. At one point she has a chance to escape but she stays.

At the end of the book a murder has been committed, a person has been severely injured and another one escapes. That’s all I’m telling you.

I liked this puzzle approach, I found it interesting to only ever get a few snippets of information which only formed a whole after I had finished the book. The main story line ends in a satisfying way but there is a lot of back story which is never really sorted out. There are too many open questions at the end. I don’t aways mind being left with unanswered questions if I think, the author withheld answers despite the fact that he/she had them. When I feel it was an easy way out for the author, I’m not impressed. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that this is what happened here.

Bunker is a quick read, offers an interesting narrative technique but I’m still not sure whether it is not rather a gimmick than a great book.

Zoran Drvenkar: Tell Me What You See – Sag mir, was du siehst (2002) German YA Fantasy Thriller

Zoran Drvenkar was born in Croatia in 1967 and moved to Berlin with his parents at the age of three. He is the author of far over 30 books for children, young adults and adults. His gritty thriller for adults Sorry and the fantasy thriller Tell Me What You See – Sag mir, was du siehst are the only books available in English so far. I’ve read a collection of short stories a couple of years ago and really liked it. I thought he is the perfect choice for genre week.

Tell Me What You See was very different from the other book I read by him and very different from anything I ever read. Some call him the Neil Gaiman of German literature (a title that Christoph Marzi holds as well).  After having read this novel I have to say, it’s not a good comparison. He is very different.

If you look at the German cover below you get the perfect feel of this book. It has very strong imagery and a mysterious story. The book starts during Christmas night. Sixteen year old Alissa and her best friend Evelin wander around the snow-covered graveyard, in the middle of the night. It’s icy cold and they are looking for Alissa’s father’s grave like every Christmas. He died in an accident a few years ago and Alissa cannot get over it. While looking for the grave, Alissa falls into an open crypt, discovers the coffin of a small child and a mysterious plant growing out of that coffin. Something urges her to rip out the plant and eat it.

From that moment on things get strange and scary. Alissa sees figures nobody else sees, she notices ravens all over the town, her former boyfriend Simon starts stalking her. What she doesn’t know is that ingesting a magical plant like this is deadly for the wrong host.

If you want to know whether she will survive or join her father, what those figures are and discover the secret of the plant, you have to read the book. The answers and the ending is a bit sad and quite unexpected.

I loved reading this book, I liked the imagery so much and found the story suspenseful. I didn’t care so much for the language though. It’s very rude in places, especially in the parts written in Simon’s POV.

Tell Me What You See is very evocative and atmospherical, a perfect read for this time of the year. If you like snow, graveyards, ravens, old dilapidated villas and ghosts, this is a must read for you.

I have to add that I was a bit taken aback by the explicit references to sex, especially since this is a book for the age group 12+. Clearly there are other rules for German YA novels. I have no children but I asked someone if they would think it is OK for their twelve-year-old child to read about blowjobs and other explicit things. The answer, as I had expected, was no. I just thought I’d let you know if you consider buying this as a Christmas gift for a younger person.

Vishy and I decided to read this book together. You can find his review here. It’s worth having a look as he included many beautiful quotes from the book.