Barbara Honigmann: A Love Made Out of Nothing – Eine Liebe aus nichts (1991)

A Love Made Out of Nothing

Barbara Honigmann’s A Love Made Out of Nothing tells the story of a young expatriate’s journey back to Weimar to attend her father’s funeral. As the narrator remembers her father’s life, she explores her own past and relates her struggle to establish new roots following her emigration from Berlin to Paris. In its portrayal of a young woman’s complex relationship with her father, the novella offers a rich account of German-Jewish history and of the search for identity in the shadow of World War II.

This is my first book by German author Barbara Honigmann but it’s not going to be my last. I loved this novella. A Love Made Out of Nothing  – Eine Liebe aus nichts is written in a very intimate style, almost like a memoir. Honigmann usually weaves her own life into the narrative, blending fact and fiction.

The narrator, who lives in Paris, starts her story with the funeral of her father. He has died in Weimar and she wanted to attend. It’s the first time in years that she goes back to Germany. She’s born in East-Berlin after the war to Jewish parents who had spent WWII in England. After the war the father decides to live in the Russian sector.

Her father has been married four times, her mother was wife number two. She’s returned to her home country Bulgaria years ago and even lost the German language. There is no possibility for the narrator to communicate with her as she doesn’t speak Bulgarian.

During her childhood she spent all of her weekends with her father and stayed in contact with him ever since. A couple of years before his death, she leaves the DDR and moves to Paris, hoping that a new city, a new language would not only bring a new life but her own transformation.

Much of her emotional life is full of shadows and muted grief over the impossibility to live with the man she loves. All they have is a “Love Made Out of Nothing” as it proves to be impossible for them to live together. When she meets someone else that love can’t be lived either because the man returns to the US.

Memory, identity, languages, exile and emigration are the themes this small poetic book explores. The reasons why someone leaves his or her home country are complex. Political reasons, danger, a lack of freedom are triggers, but they are not the only motive. There is always also the wish to become another person and when that isn’t possible what remains is a feeling of loss and unfulfilled yearning. The narrator wishes to be rootless, but, paradoxically, in trying to run away from her home and her parents she imitates their life.

Barbara Honigmann is a Jewish author but she transcends the Jewish experience and captures the universality of her themes, making it easy for non-Jewish readers to identify. I have read the German edition of this book that’s why I can’t tell you anything about the second novella, which is contained in the English edition.

23 thoughts on “Barbara Honigmann: A Love Made Out of Nothing – Eine Liebe aus nichts (1991)

  1. This sounds like a good book, especially since I’m an expat living in the US. I am really excited that I found a German edition here in the US, and it ships for free, too. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  2. Beautiful review, Caroline! This looks like a beautiful book. I would have loved a scene in the book where the narrator meets her mother. The narrator knows only German, her mother knows only Bulgarian. How would they have talked? They would have had so many things to talk about and share but the language barrier would have been like an invisible transparent wall between them. Would they have been able to transcend that? It makes one wonder. I loved this sentence from your review – “The narrator wishes to be rootless, but, paradoxically, in trying to run away from her home and her parents she imitates their life.” I don’t know whether it is possible to be rootless but people do try to do that – try out different kinds of cuisine, speak in an international language in a neutral accent, have liberal beliefs and points of view, try to live in different countries, try to be a part of humanity rather than be a part of one country or region. It is a fascinating question to explore. Thanks for this wonderful review, Caroline. It made me think a lot.

    • Thanks, Vishy. the book made me think a lot as well. About parents who move fom their home countries, live with new partners. Most of it sounded familiar, without the Jewish background but she doesn’t emphasize that, she makes her experience accessible for everyone.
      It sounds as if she was much closer to her father and that could, possibly, have a lot to do with the language.
      In a way it also showed me that many Germans lost there country through WWII, they could never go back to the country they once liked.

  3. This sounds as if it avoids many of the cliches of post World War II novels. A Jewish family that was not directly caught in the worst part of the Holocaust, characters who seem to travel in and out of East Germany, etc., characters with really complicated international connections, etc. , That in itself makes it something that I believe that I would like. Honigmann sounds like another Germain radar that I should put on my radar.

    • That’s waht I thought exactly. Sure, being Jewish had a huge impact but the way she writes about it makes it applicable to other people as well.
      She’s an excellent writer, the small details she captures are wonderful. How memory works . . . I believe you’d like it.

  4. This sounds good–unfortunately neither librar I use has any of her books. I like reading about the GDR–am feeling a little dissatisfied with my own reading choices–really liked The Wall, am lukewarm about the Wolf book (only because it feels a little out of my grasp), and Kafka is excellent but not a book I can feel very warm and fuzzy about–if you know what I mean…. I was going to read The Quest for Christa T, but now I am not so sure. I have a copy of The Spectacle Salesman’s Family that you mentioned–maybe I should try that–have you read it yet?

    • Too bad I really loved this. It’s short but so rich. I can imagine that the Wolf would leave me a bit lukewarm too and Kafka – not fuzzy at all.
      I haven’t read The Spectacle Saleman’s Family but started it, just to see whether I would like it and if it hadn’t been so long it would have been my preferred choice. I think it’s very good. Intelligent but one that could make you really love it. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. I need to get to the Keilson now, or I might have still started it.

      • I can order a used copy of the Honigmann–or maybe I will see if I can get it from ILL. I have just barely started the Keilson–I am having a hard time getting into it, but I think it is only due to the act I don’t have a chunk of time to read it–reading just a little at a time doesn’t seem to be a good idea with this book. I hope that having extra time off next week will let me spend more time with my reading! And I might see abot The Spectacle Salesman’s Family–but if I start it now I likely won’t finish it before the end of the month–I always seem to have lots of straggler books though….

        • The novella I read is only about 100 pages long, I guess together with the second novella, it would be longer, so it really depneds how expensive those used copies are. If you can get it through ILL that might be worth it.
          The Spectacle … is a bit long or I would have started it. I need to begin the Keilson then. I didn’t take into consideration that it might not be a breezy read.

          • I had an Amazon credit so I ordered a used copy of this–don’t know how vendors can sell a book for a penny, but I am not complaining–the postage costs more! But I am looking forward to reading it now that you have praised it so!

  5. Another one available in French! it goes on the TBR.
    Why did they decide to come back from England to live in the Russian sector of Berlin? It seems an odd idea to me, thinking with my eyes of the 21st century.

    • I think the wy she apparoches memoir, slightly more fictional, would be something you’d enjoy, I’m sure.
      maybe, like Danielle, you could find a used copy? I’d be very interested to hear what you think.

  6. Pingback: German Literature Month III – Author Index | Lizzy's Literary Life

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