Joseph Roth: Flight Without End – Die Flucht ohne Ende (1927) Literature and War Readalong November 2014

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I’ve read a few novels by Joseph Roth now and every time I’m surprised how different they are. Die Flucht ohne EndeFlight Without End is no exception. This is a Roth I’ve not encountered so far, or only in snippets. Flight Without End clearly shows the mark of the journalist, but it’s also the book of someone who cannot take the society he lives in seriously. Rarely have I seen him this sarcastic, mocking individuals and groups of people. And rarely have I come across a Roth that was this funny. I had to laugh out loud more than once and truly wish the translator was able to capture this. Roth’s wit and humour is very subtle and although a translation could be literal, the humour might get lost in translation as it’s often tied to one word that changes the meaning. Mostly he uses it when describing someone. Here’s just a short example.

Eine junge Schauspielerin, die zwar mit dem dicken Zweiten Bürgermeister geschlafen hatte, aber unbeschädigt aus seiner Umarmung wieder herausgekommen war und teilweise sogar erfrischt.

A young actress, who indeed slept with the fat second mayor but came out of this embrace undamaged, partially even refreshed.

I take just one element of the sentence to explain what I mean. It’s entirely possible to choose the word unharmed instead of undamaged but it would remove a lot of the fun. “Unbeschädigt” means both unharmed or undamaged, but normally you’d use it for an object, while unharmed would rather mean a person. Roth chose undamaged very consciously.

What struck me too in this book was how cosmopolitan Roth was. The book starts in the Russian steppe, moves to Baku, from there to Vienna, then to a unamed city on the Rhine, and ends in Paris. Each place is described masterfully, its essence captured, its character laid bare.

The story is a bit more problematic. I’ve seen this book mentioned as one of Roth’s weakest works, which would have needed some editing. I agree to some extent. I didn’t mind the lack of plot. What we find here is basically the story of a quest. Franz Tunda, former officer, then captive of the Russian army, escapee, revolutionary, drifter and private tutor, lacks one thing – a home. What is home for a man like Tunda? If he can be of some use, he’s adopted everywhere, but never really welcome. He stays an outsider and this makes him a keen observer. He sees behind everyone’s masks, doesn’t buy any of the big theories on progress and wealth. He’s as wary of the communists as he is of the socialist’s and the bourgeoisie. They all have a hidden agenda. That’s why his flight is without end because, as vast as the world may be, society ultimately makes it very small and there’s no home for those who don’t play along. When I get so much insight and analysis of people and countries I don’t mind a lack of plot. My reservation has something to do with the structure of the book. It’s presented as if we were reading an account of someone who is Tunda’s friend. At the same time there are accounts that are directly made by Tunda and it switches occasionally from third to first person. I think this would have needed editing but it’s a minor flaw.

One of the most poignant scenes is when Tunda visits the grave of the unknown soldier, under the Arc de Triomphe, in Paris.

The blue flame burned not to honor the dead soldiers, but to reassure the survivors. Nothing was more cruel than the blissfully ignorant devotion of a surviving father at the grave of his son, whom he had sacrificed without knowing it. Tunda sometimes felt as if he himself lay there in the ground, as if we all lay there, all those of use who set out from home and were killed and buried, or who came back but never came home. For it doesn’t really matter whether we’re buried or alive and well. We’re strangers in this world, we come from the realm of shadows.

Flight Without End doesn’t show us a poetic or lyrical Roth. It’s not elegiac or nostalgic. It’s sarcastic and ironic. It’s the work of someone who saw the downside of globalisation long before anyone else and who was no fool when it came to human beings. There are a few good ones out there but they hardly ever occupy the big stages; they might be hidden somewhere in the Taiga, doing their thing quietly and unseen.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s witty, irreverent, unflinching and astute. It may not be the best book for someone who hasn’t read Roth yet, but it’s a must-read for those who already like him.


Other reviews

Vishy (Vishy’s Blog) 



Flight Without End is the eleventh book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is Letters from a Lost Generation by Vera Brittain and four of her friends. Discussion starts on Monday 29 December, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Joseph Roth: Weights and Measures – Das falsche Gewicht (1937)

Weights and Measures

How does an upright, steadfast man survive among corruption, hypocrisy, and crime? Roth’s answer to this question, which lies at the heart of Weights and Measures – Das falsche Gewicht, is pretty simple: he doesn’t. Either he is tainted or he will go down.

Anselm Eibenschütz, a former officer, leaves his soldier’s life behind and becomes the inspector of weights and measures in Zlotogrod. He hasn’t changed profession by choice but because his wife urged him too. The change is hard on Eibenschütz. He’s not used to this region; it’s colder and rougher than where he used to live, and he isn’t cut out for the job. It’s not to his liking and since he is incorruptible and upright, he clashes with the merchants of the region. Hardly anyone conducts honest business. They all rely on extra-money, coming from the use of false weights and measures and smuggling. While the old inspector was open to bribes, Eibenschütz is not. He reports every single misconduct and sends even the poorest to prison. A kind man at heart, this is especially hard on him. He doesn’t want to punish those who have nothing, but can’t make exceptions because the richer would find out and he would be denounced. He finds ways to help the poor though. Either he doesn’t check on their shops or he warns them somehow.

Eibenschütz blames his wife for his misfortunes. Why did she have to talk him into leaving his former life? He begins to hate and neglect her and when he finds out she’s cheating on him, it offers him an excuse to neglect her even more.

In the province of Zlotogrod is a border tavern that is visited by smugglers. Jadlowker, the owner, is a profiteer and famous everywhere for his criminal activities. He lives with a beautiful gypsy woman, Euphemia. When poor Eibenschütz sees her for the first time he falls in love and becomes a regular customer.

From that moment on it goes downhill for Eibenschütz. Even though he is able to arrest Jadlowker and is named supervisor of the tavern, he doesn’t find happiness, but turns into an alcoholic. Eibenschütz isn’t the only one who is tested. There’s an unseasonably warm winter towards the end of the book; a cholera epidemic breaks out and kills hundreds. Because people fear to touch the dead, prisoners are used as undertakers. Jadlowker grabs the opportunity and flees. The end of the book is foreseeable and tragic.

I thought this was an absolutely remarkable novel for many reasons. The main theme is the clash between an honest man and a corrupt system, but what is amazing is how the story unfolds in front of the background of the disintegrating Austro-Hungarian monarchy and serves as a mirror. The book really gives you a feel for how huge this monarchy was, how extended, and how many cultures were part of it.

What I liked most is how Roth used the descriptions of the place and the weather to show Eibenschütz’s emotions and to underline the wild remoteness of this region. There were many beautiful small scenes and episodes. Eibenschütz is upright and stiff, but he’s also very emotional and feels deeply. His life as a soldier sheltered him emotionally; experiencing heartache and passion, unhinges him. When he falls in love he discovers nature. Before his “awakening” nature is just a phenomenon he sees but barely notices. The changing seasons bring rain or snow, breaking ice or sunshine, but that doesn’t affect him. Once he’s “awake” he feels the seasons, feels he’s part of it.

Weights and Measures is a wonderful book. Short, complex, and filled with poetic descriptions. Knowing that Roth battled alcoholism all of his life, gives Eibenschütz’ descent into alcoholism an even deeper meaning.

Here’s a wonderful review by Max (Pechorin’s Journal) which contains quotes.

Thomas Mann: Tonio Kröger (1903)

Tonio Kröger

Tonio Kröger is considered one of Thomas Mann’s masterpieces, but only a few elements spoke to me, most of it infuriated me.  The writing is stellar, as usual, and the way he described Lübeck – the narrow alleys and gabled roofs – made me want to travel there, but the idea of the artist as tortured soul and ultimately superior was hard to stomach.

Tonio Kröger is the son of a German Consul and a Southern woman. He’s got his looks, – dark eyes and dark hair – and the name from her. From an early age on, Tonio feels he’s different, an outsider. Not only because his mother’s from the South, but because he loves books and art and feels like an artist. He first feels an intense love for blond and blue-eyed Hans and later for the blond, blue-eyed Inge. They seem to live in another sphere, a happier one, more immersed in life and what society expects from them.

Tonio wants to become a writer and finally, in his twenties, leaves Lübeck for Munich where he lives a life of debauchery, which disgusts him eventually. A long central chapter shows us Tonio discussing his views of art and life with the painter Lisaweta Iwanowna. Tonio is in his thirties now. Prematurely aged and sobered. Shortly afterwards, he departs for his hometown Lübeck. He visits his family home, which has been sold after the death of his father. One part of the stately home houses a public library. Tonio walks through the once familiar rooms. There’s nothing here for him anymore. He leaves for Denmark. At the hotel in Denmark he meets Hans and Inge again. They are married. He watches them without making himself seen. He’s less an outsider now than a spectator, still, he feels keenly that he’s different and decides to return home which isn’t Lübeck anymore.

A last letter to Lisaweta tells us he’s made peace with himself and will return to Munich for good.

The descriptions and the structure of the novella are wonderful. The way Mann captures the feeling of being an outsider is something one can easily relate to. But I didn’t like the ideas contained in the book. Tonio suffers a lot and he would like to be an ordinary person, like Hans and Inge. He would like to be blond and blue-eyed because those people have an easier, happier life. He’s tortured because he’s no conformist, but an artist. This is so dated and clichéd, it’s painful. Plus the association of blue eyes, blond hair with health and strength made me shudder. There’s also a lot of arrogance in this depiction of an artist. Yes, Tonio does suffer – or says so – , but he very obviously feels superior too.

I don’t think you have to be a tortured soul to be a great artists. Feeling like an outsider and being a non-conformist, most probably comes with it, but it doesn’t mean you have to suffer. And it most certainly doesn’t mean you are superior. I can’t accept the idea of an artist (or anyone else) as a superior person  or as “chosen”. That’s pure hubris. Tonio Kröger is filled to the brim with hubris. The suffering Tonio professes felt more like a pose than real pain.

Has anyone read Tonio Kröger? How do you feel about it?

Bad Literature Doesn’t Equal Genre – On Judith Hermann’s Aller Liebe Anfang (2014)

Aller Liebe Anfang

Edo Reents, the critic of the FAZ – Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – wrote about Judith Hermann’s long-awaited first novel:  “Judith Hermann has two problems. She cannot write and she has nothing to say.” – “Judith Hermann hat zwei Probleme: Sie kann nicht schreiben, und sie hat nichts zu sagen”. I wouldn’t go as far as that, but I too felt that the muses were absent while she wrote this. It’s particularly disappointing because she took a long time to write this novel. Her last book came out in 2009. You’d expect a masterpiece after five years of silence.

Edo Reents’ review wasn’t the only one I read and most critics share his opinion; they just don’t word it as a personal attack. I’m not keen on this type of exposure of an author, but there were other elements – in the reviews and the book – that were incredibly annoying.

Aller Liebe Anfang is a stalker novel. Yes, another one. It’s the choice of theme that led the critics to the most stupid analysis I’ve read in a long time. Because this is a topic often used in genre literature and because the book isn’t great, they deduce that it must be genre. Some critics even mentioned Stephen King. Now, you may like Stephen King or not, but the guy knows how to write great genre and, funny enough, if you read Aller Liebe Anfang as genre – it’s even worse. Clearly those critics just know about Stephen King, they haven’t read him or any other genre writer or they would know that plausibility and logic are key in most crime novels. Unfortunately you don’t find a lot of that in Hermann’s book. Nor do you find compelling and precise descriptions, but blurred settings and faulty imagery. The characters too are blurred and their occupations seem vague. I’ve never heard of a nurse doing people’s shopping or of a carpenter designing houses.

What’s the novel about? Stella and Jason have been married for five years. They live with their small daughter in the suburbs. Where? We don’t know. That’s another annoying trait of this book: Everything is vague. Jason is mostly gone for weeks and Stella is alone. She loves to sit in the living room, in front of a huge window, reading. She doesn’t realize that she’s probably watched all the time until one day a guy rings the door bell demanding to talk to her. She refuses and, Mister Pfister (yes, that’s his name, not Herr Pfister), insists. He returns daily, leaves messages, photos, small things in her letter box. Stella is passive at first and when she finally reacts it’s too late. Things go very wrong.

Why does she not react? Because she’s unsettled by Mister Pfister and starts to look at her own life from outside. Is this really the life she wanted? Has she ever decided what kind of life she wants or has she just been drifting?

The reflections circling around Stella’s life were well done. I also liked her prose in these sections because some of the descriptions stood out like scarecrows on an empty field. She does more telling than showing but it’s often interesting telling. She takes risks.

In spite of some good elements, this isn’t a book I would recommend. I seriously wonder what went wrong here. I have a suspicion. Judith Herman is one of a few German authors who has been highly praised and translated into English – and many other languages. This book feels as if it had been written with an international market in mind. Knowing that the US and UK market is much more interested in plot, she added a stalker element to an otherwise quiet and introspective novel. The names she chose are very telling too. Stella, Jason, Ava, Mister Pfister  – really? I haven’t come across these names in Germany very often. And then there’s the  setting. It’s deliberately vague – with a bit of imagination it could be set anywhere in the world.

I once thought that Judith Hermann was one of the most important younger writers. I still think her shot story collections are wonderful. But she isn’t a novelist and she shouldn’t add a dodgy plot to her story just because she has an international market in mind. Considering how very few German books are translated into English, I would wish, this one wouldn’t make it and leave room for something that’s really good. Sadly, without the stalker element – and maybe 100 pages shorter – this could have been another of her memorable short stories.


Michael Kumpfmüller: Die Herrlichkeit des Lebens (2011) – The Glory of Life (2014)

Die Herrlichkeit des LebensThe Glory of Life

There are two types of historical novels: those which are pure fiction and those in which real people are brought to life. I’m fond of the latter, so I was interested in Michael Kumpfmüller’s Kafka novel  Die Herrlichkeit des Lebens – The Glory of Life.

What a sad and moving book this is. The last Kafka book I’ve read was Brief and den Vater – Letter to My Father, and with that in mind, Kumpfmüller’s novel was even more moving. There’s this future giant at of German literature, who, at forty, is still afraid to face his father, to make decisions for himself, and to allow himself to live a happy, fulfilled life. And then, on a holiday with his sister, he meets Dora Diamant, a young Eastern Jewish woman who works as a cook in a holiday home for Jewish children. It’s the year 1923, Kafka has been ill for many years by then and is retired. A year later, in 1924, he will be dead.

Dora Diamant falls in love with him instantly. She loves this sensitive, delicate man. He too, falls in love. She’s good for him and for the first time in his life he makes plans for the future. They want to live together in Berlin. He will not return to his family home in Prague. It takes a lot of courage for him to oppose his parents, but they finally give in. Of course, they don’t know that he will live with Dora.

The months in Berlin are some of the happiest in Kafrka’s life, but they are difficult too. Kafka and Dora are not married and landlords aren’t keen on having them in their house. And there’s the hyperinflation. Money’s devalued constantly. Life in Berlin is incredibly expensive. The winter is harsh and the apartments are cold. It doesn’t take a lot for a frail man like Kafka to fall ill again. This time it will be fatal.

The book tells us how he has to return to Prague, from there to a sanatorium in Austria, and to another one, near Vienna. Dora follows him eventually. Kafka’s parents have accepted her. Possibly they sense it’s the end anyway.

It’s incredibly sad to read how Kafka suffered. How painful it was to write his final short stories, but it’s also interesting to read about some of those stories and what they meant. In his last year, for the first time, he stood up against his father; for the first time he’s almost free. Too late though. He dies in June 1924, after long and intense suffering.

Kumpfmüller alternates between Dora’s and Kafka’s point of view which enlarges the book. The dialogue is rendered in indirect speech which is the only way this could have been done. Anything else would have been tacky. Besides, he had to invent most. The notebooks and letters of Kafka’s last years are lost. Dora took them and in 1933 they were confiscated by the Nazis.

I never pictured Kafka to be a ladies’ man nor that there was a true joy of life hidden in him. It’s horrible to see to what extent his father crushed him.

Anyone interested in Kafka should read this. Preferably, in parallel with some of his short stories and The Letter to My Father.

Jan Costin Wagner: Im Winter der Löwen (2008) – The Winter of the Lions (2011) – Kimmo Joentaa Series 3

The Winter of the Lions

Jan Costin Wagner may very well be THE discovery of this year’s German Literature Month for me. I started The Winter of the Lions, book three in the series, in October and since then I’ve already read Silence, book two, have started book one, Ice Moon, and ordered the remaining two novels. Book five just came out in German. Now you certainly wonder why I’ve started the series backwards. There’s a reason, although, now that I’m reading book one I know, I shouldn’t have worried. I knew that Detective Kimmo Joentaa loses his wife in book one. I thought that a large part of the book would focus on her illness, but she dies in the first two pages and the book is about grief and loss, not about illness. The death of Joentaa’s wife, which is a recurring theme in every book, underlines that each novel is, at its core, a meditation on death.

It’s interesting that reading the series backwards makes me much more aware of how much Joentaa is changing. And it’s precisely this change which makes the series such a great read. Joentaa is not only likable but complex and sensitive, a truly appealing character. I’m also pleasantly surprised about how different each book is, although there are many similarities. In the first, Ice Moon, most chapters are written from Joentaa’s point of view, a few from the murderer’s perspective. In book two, Silence, we have a whole chorus of voices. Joentaa’s is only one of many. In The Winter of the Lions, Wagner uses a similar approach as in Ice Moon. Most chapters are written from Joentaa’s point of view, only a few from the point of view of the murderer.

What makes this series so outstanding is the choice of themes. While the detective has to find the murderer the books are much more an exploration of the reasons why someone was killed than simple “whodunits”. Only in finding the reason for a murder, does Joentaa find the killer.

The careful uncovering of the reason behind a series of murders is even more important in The Winter of the Lions than in the first two books. While book one focuses on the meaning of death, book two is a study of guilt, and book three looks into the way we treat other people’s tragedies.

The Winter of the Lion starts on Christmas Eve. Joentaa has been a widower for two years and has come to terms with his loneliness. He even looks forward to spend Christmas on his own. While he’s still at the police station, a young woman wants to report a rape. She’s a prostitute and pretends one of her customer’s has raped her. When Joentaa begins to ask questions, she withdraws. She doesn’t want to go into details.

Surprisingly, the same woman rings Joentaa’s door bell a little while later, when he’s back home. She spends the night with him and they begin a very unusual relationship.

The strange woman isn’t the only one to disturb Joentaa’s quiet Christmas. One of his colleague’s, the police pathologist, is found stabbed in a snowy wood. A little while later a puppeteer is killed and a famous talk show host is attacked.

All of the victims of the perpetrator in The Winter of the Lions took part in a talk show, in which victims of accidents, fires, and murder were the topic of the discussion.

One of the many questions the book asks is: When does one person’s tragedy become another person’s entertainment? I would love to write in more details about the topics in the book but I would spoil it.

What made me love Wagner’s books even more was his writing style. This is crime at the literary end of the spectrum. The sentences are short, spare, and very precise.

As if all of this wasn’t enough there’s a haunting atmosphere in every book and the Finnish setting is another bonus, especially since each book takes place during another season. I loved to read about the long nights in winter and the endless days in summer.

Should you wonder why a German author chose to set his books in Finland —Wagner is married to a Finnish woman and spends half of the year in Finland.

This is one of the best crime series I know. Haunting, atmospherical, with philosophical depth and impeccable writing.

Here is Guy’s excellent review of book two – Silence.

Daniel Glattauer: Forever Yours (2014) – Ewig Dein (2012)

Ewig DeinForever Yours

I’ve read two of Glattauer’s books Love Virtually and Every Seventh Wave and enjoyed them both. When Forever Yours – Ewig Dein came out two years ago I got it but didn’t get a chance to read it. Now that the English translation just came out, seemed to be a good time to pick it up. As you can see I added the German and the English cover. I find the German one so much better.

What a peculiar book. Not so much because of the story but because of the way it was written. The distanced and highly ironic style that Glattauer uses here made me wonder “What is this meant to be?”. I still have no clue. Is this a psychological thriller? A satirical analysis of a relationship that goes more than a little wrong? The combination of the two? A mix between parody and realistic story?

It starts simple enough. Judith, a 30-something single woman, owner of a shop that sells lamps, located in the heart of Vienna, meets Hannes while shopping. He accidentally tramples on her heel. Not exactly a great way to chat someone up but Judith accepts to meet him for a coffee. Hannes is a 42-year-old architect, specialized in designing pharmacies.

At no time does the reader get the impression that Judith fancies Hannes but he seems to be so besotted with her that she sort of slides into a relationship with him. Mostly because she’s flattered. While she’s not into him, she’s into the way he sees her. In spite of this, she soon feels suffocated and tries to end it. That proves much more difficult than she would ever have imagined.

At this point the book turns into an accurate and scary depiction of stalking. Hannes doesn’t let go. He follows her, smothers her with signs of affection, and, slowly Judith starts to lose her mind.

The book doesn’t end there and many twists and turns follow until the chilling ending.

It’s very rare that I like the beginning and the end of a book but not the middle. Many of the chapters that Glattauer calls phases are too far-fetched and far from realistic. I also found many of Judith reactions questionable. And at the same time the way Glattauer wrote about this made me question his intentions.

This isn’t Glattauer’s best book, it’s even dubious at times. It was still readable, had a lot of pertinent observations and the end was good. It’s a rather unusual psychological thriller, but for me it was rather a disappointment. I’m not sure stalking should be the topic of a parody.