Jean Echenoz: 1914 – 14 (2012) Literature and War Readalong March 2016

1914

Jean Echenoz tells a very simple story in this short, compressed novel. Five men go to war; two of them return, three don’t. Two of them are brothers and in love with the same woman. The characters as such are not that interesting. What is interesting is what happens to them. Each stands for something that is particular to WWI. Charles is shot down when he joins a pilot to take pictures. The industrialization of war and the use of planes is new. Both elements were important for Echenoz and whole chapters are dedicated to them. One of the men is blinded by gas. That, too is a new and especially beastly feature of WWI. One man returns after having lost an arm. I don’t think any war saw as many mutilated men return. One of the men is executed because they mistake him for a deserter. The absurdity and farce of these decisions is made clear. One man dies during an attack. His body’s lost somewhere in the mud of no-man’s-land. All these are exemplary fates and could have turned the men into pure types, but thanks to Echenoz’s sense for detail, they are more than just types. Echenoz, as he said many times, isn’t interested in psychology. To convey a characters personality and emotions he sticks to pure “show don’t tell”. He describes the actions and the objects surrounding the characters. Both contribute to the description, one in a very realistic, the other in a more symbolic way. I think this was what fascinated me the most. Echenoz’s writing is so rigorous. There’s not one superfluous word. The vocabulary is refined, rich, and exact. He uses lists and enumerations, abstraction, numbers, irony. His writing is visual, even audiovisual because he tries to convey emotions through sounds.

1914  – 14 is one of those books that gets more interesting the more you read about it. My French paperback had about 40 pages of additional material, for which I was grateful, as an important element of Echenoz’s writing is intertexuality. I’ll give you one example. The story begins with Anthime on a hill. There’s a strong wind and suddenly he hears church bells ringing the tocsin that signals mobilisation. At the end of the scene, Anthime drives back to the village on his bicycle. He loses his book which has fallen from his bicycle and opened at the chapter “Aures habet, et non audiet”. What is interesting here is the fact that this whole scene is inspired, or rather taken from a scene in Victor Hugo’s Quatrevingt-treize – 93. It’s almost the same scene, only in Hugo’s novel, the character cannot hear the church bells, he only sees them moving. Echenoz who is interested in sound – the incredible noise is another new feature of this war – rewrote this scene, describing the sound of the bells. The book that Anthime carried with him is Hugo’s book. Allusions like these, which blend history and literature and the writing about history and literature are frequent and the closer you read, the more allusions you find.

When the book came out it was praised for its originality although Echenoz himself doesn’t seem to think it’s all that original. Here’s a quote from the book.

All this has been described a thousand times, so perhaps it’s not worthwhile to linger any longer over that sordid, stinking opera. And perhaps there’s not much point either in comparing the war to an opera, especially since no one cares about opera, even if war is operatically grandiose, exaggerated, excessive, full of longueurs, makes a great deal of noise and is often, in the end, rather boring.

I can see why critics found this original. His writing style is unique and he includes some chapters, like the one on animals, which is very different from what I’ve read in other WWI novels. The most original however is that he uses the techniques of the Nouveau Roman. One of these techniques is to explore nontraditional ways of telling a story. That’s why we find shifts in POV, intrusions of the author. Comments about the future etc. To some extent it is as much a book about writing as about war.

In an interview at the beginning of my edition, Echenoz names the three books that have influenced him the most when he wrote 14. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front – Im Westen nichts Neues, Henry Barbusse’s Feu Under Fire (Prix Goncourt 1916) and Gabriel Chevallier’s Peur – Fear, which we have read during an earlier Literature and War Readalong.

As short as this novel is, it’s very complex. Luckily, others have reviewed it too and much better than I.

I really liked Echenoz’s writing and would like to read more of him. Do you have suggestions?

Other reviews

Juliana (The Blank Garden)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

 

 

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1914 was the second book in the Literature and War Readalong 2016. The next book is the a novel on the war in Korea, The Hunters by James Salter. Discussion starts on Tuesday 31 May, 2016. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including the book blurbs can be found here.

On Robert Seethaler’s Ein ganzes Leben – A Whole Life (2013)

Ein ganzes LebenA Whole Life

I’ve heard a lot about Austrian author Robert Seethaler’s books, especially Der Trafikant, but only when I saw that his latest had been translated and longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, did I finally feel like reading him. I’ve read so many raving reviews that I thought I’d love this. Unfortunately, I didn’t. When I went digging for German and Swiss reviews, I found out that he wasn’t so unanimously praised and that I was far from alone in being highly critical of this novel. That said, it’s not a bad book. It has beautiful passages but it felt oddly anachronistic and I couldn’t shake a feeling of déjà-vu” or rather “déjà-read”. I should have picked one of his other novels. I’ve read so many similar books by earlier authors that I couldn’t help but wonder “Why did he write this?”. Robert Walser, Meinrad Inglin, C.F. Ramuz, they all wrote similar stories but, in my opinion, much better. There’s even a recent crime novel that’s similar. Now, maybe it’s unfair to judge a book because of its lack of originality, but I had other problems. People wrote how beautiful it was, how soothing, calming, refreshing. The only thing I found soothing, calming, and refreshing was the moment when it was over and I realized – wow – am I grateful for my own life.

Our protagonist, Andreas Egger, is an orphan, has to live with an uncle who is cruel, even sadistic, beats him until he’s crippled. Later he falls in love but the woman is taken from him. After that he volunteers to go to war (we’re in 1940s) and is refused. Later he’s taken anyway and soon becomes a prisoner of war on the Russian Front. He comes home; things have changed. He works like a donkey. He’s always alone. He sees a buddy lose an arm. And so on and so fort. It takes a stronger reader than me to find much joy in something like this. I found it nightmarish.

I did like a few passages because the descriptions were amazing. I liked the way he captured the mountains. The book is set in the Alps, pre-electricity, pre-tourism, at first. I’ve seen the scary side of the Alps. I always feel like the mountains are alive, brooding and lying in waiting. Seethaler does evoke that. (But so do Inglin and Ramuz). I also liked a few really crazy moments like the beginning in which the main character carries an old man down the mountains (that doesn’t sound crazy but believe me— it is. I’m trying not to spoil this book too much).

In the NZZ, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the critic Hannelore Schlaffer called this a book for sadists. Of course, that’s an exaggeration but I get what she means. I wish I had picked another of Seethaler’s books. They all sound wonderfully original. However, my biggest problem is that of all of his books, this is the one that was chosen for translation. Why? WWII? Again? Admittedly it’s just a short sequence but it’s important.

To some extent, I can see the appeal. Andreas Egger is a quiet man. Someone who doesn’t care for tourism and all the commodities a modern life brings. He’s modest and humble. You couldn’t find a character who is less narcissistic. All this is admirable but why did Seethaler have to turn this into such a biblical story? Couldn’t our humble protagonist have experienced more joy? Why was Seethaler so cruel to his character?

It may surprise you, but I’m tempted to pick another of Seethaler’s novels and I’m even convinced I will like it. Not every book is for everyone and this one wasn’t for me.

Those who loved this might enjoy Robert Schneider’s Schlafes Bruder – Brother of Sleep, which I found amazing. They might also enjoy this trio of Swiss writers, two of which write in German, one in French: Robert Walser, Meinrad Inglin, and C. F. Ramuz.

As I said, I have read many positive reviews of this book. Here are a few Lizzy, Vishy, Stu, and Pat.

Here’s the link to the NZZ review (in German)

Hermann Hesse Reading Week Wrap Up

hesse revised

I’m a little late with this but I have a nasty cold since the weekend.

I wanted to thank my co-host, Karen, and those who have participated. I enjoyed Hermann Hesse Reading Week a great deal.

I managed to read one novel, one novella and a longer short story.

Here are the links to all the participant’s posts. Thanks to Karen for collecting the links.

Gertrude from 1st Reading and Lizzy’s Literary Life

Steppenwolf from  Annabel’s House of Books and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

and Dark Puss

Rosshalde from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

Siddhartha from Hard Book Habit

Klingsor’s Last Summer from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat  and from South of Paris Books

Poems from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Hesse – Love Him or Leave Him? from Lizzy’s Literary Life

The Glass Bead Game from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Demian from Tipping My Fedora

Kinderseele from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and from Intermittencies of the Mind

Narziss and Goldmund from Intermittencies of the Mind

 

 

Hermann Hesse: Kinderseele – A Child’s Heart (1919)

Die schönsten Erzählungen

Hermann Hesse was born into a family of priests, missionaries, and theologians. It’s easy to imagine how oppressing this must have been for a free-spirit like Hesse. But not only was his father a very religious man, he was also very strict. He was one of those patriarchs that the children feared more than loved. Whole books have been written about the “fear of the father”, so common in the upbringing of German children at the time, and of what is called black pedagogy. Hesse suffered and rebelled against his father. The tragedy of such an upbringing isn’t only that the children fear the father but that they internalize his judgment. While you can’t compare the writers Hesse and Kafka, there’s a similarity in some of their work and in what they experienced as children. Kafka wrote about his über-father in Letter to my Father. Hesse wrote about it in Kinderseele – A Child’s Heart and other writings. Both Letter to my Father and Hesse’s story came out in 1919.

The name of Hesse’s narrator is Emil Sinclair. Readers might be familiar with that name, as Hesse chose it as his pseudonym later. Sinclair tells a story of his childhood. It’s a story of fear and rebellion. One day, when Emil Sinclair is about eleven years old, he returns home from school. He describes the entrance of the house in minute, evocative details. It’s a grand entrance but chilling and eerie. The child can’t help but feeling anxious and depressed as soon as he enters. It’s as if something was lurking in the shadows. It’s clear for the reader that he means the presence of the father who is perceived as malevolent and controlling. The moment the child enters his realm, he must fear being caught doing something forbidden.

Emil Sinclair finds the house abandoned. He goes upstairs, hoping to find the father in his study but the study and his father’s bedroom are empty. He could just leave again but something pushes him, forces him to snoop and to steal. It’s interesting that he’s scared of being punished but steals nonetheless. At first he only takes two tips of a quill, then he finds sugared figs in a drawer, eats a handful and steals some more. From this moment on, his day is agony. He fears to be found out and hopes to be found out. Being punished would be a purification.

I loved this story. The writing is beautiful and the psychology is pertinent. I’ve rarely seen the fear of the father captured so well and with so much complexity. It’s a very tight, very well-constructed story. Interestingly, while we disapprove of the father, we feel for him. He must have been a tortured soul as well. Why else would he hide a delicacy and probably eat it in secret? We also learn that he suffered terrible headaches.

I’m not going to reveal the ending – just this much – it shows clearly that Hesse, unlike Kafka, was able to free himself from his father.

One word on the translation of the title. Kinderseele means The Soul of a Child. Since this is a very psychological story, I find “soul” makes much more sense than “heart”.

The cover I added is the cover of the German edition of Hesse collected short stories. The cover painting is by Hesse.

This is my last contribution to Hesse Week which ends today. I’ll probably wrap up the event tomorrow. If you’ve contributed to this week and I haven’t seen it, please leave a link to your post in the Mr. Linky in my introductory post.

Hermann Hesse: Klingsors letzter Sommer – Klingsor’s Last Summer (1919)

Klingsor's Last Summer

The novella Klingsors letzter Sommer  or Klingsor’s Last Summer is another of Hesse’s autobiographical books. Like Veraguth in Rosshalde, Klingsor is a painter. As you may know, Hesse painted as well, so the choice of painters as alter egos makes a lot of sense. While both books are inspired by Hesse’s life and both have painters as protagonists, they don’t have much else in common. Veraguth was a realist painter, Klingsor is an expressionist. Veraguth is trapped in a loveless marriage, Klingsor is a free-spirit living an excessive life on the brink of disaster.

The way Hesse chose to write his novella is interesting because he seems to paint with words, tries to capture Klingsor’s expressionist work, and uses some of the most interesting and nuanced names for color. Here too, I liked the descriptions. The story is set in the Ticino region, the Italian part of Switzerland. It has one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Hesse barely disguises the real names. He calls Lugano – Laguno, Sorengo – Barengo  . . . As much as I liked Rosshalde, I really didn’t care for this novella. I hated the main character too much.

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Klingsor is an exalted, self-centred, alcoholic, womanizer and possibly bi-polar. The passages in which he is frenetic and exalted, tries to have sex with every woman he meets, drinks one bottle of wine after the other, and sees death, decay and destruction everywhere, were hard to take. I’ve met a few people in my life who had traits of Klingsor. I really have a hard time coping with this type of energy, even on paper. That said, I might not do this book any justice.

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Nonetheless, I’m glad I read it because it’s interesting to see, how the changes in Hesse’s life are reflected in this story. When he wrote this, he’d left his wife and three kids. Subsequently, sis wife had to be sent to a psychiatric hospital and Hesse too saw a therapist. Even his painting seems to have changed and he moved away from realistic depictions, to more expressive forms.

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What I truly enjoyed is the way he captures expressionist paintings. His choice of words is so strong and powerful; we can see distorted landscapes, painted in striking colors. Towards the end, he paints a self-portrait that really comes to life.

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Klingsor’s letzter Sommer is a short book. It’s essential reading for anyone who loves Hesse but not a good starting point for those who haven’t read him yet.

The biographical elements I’ve mentioned here and in my earlier post are taken from Heimo Schwilk’s Hesse biography. It came out in 2012. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been translated yet.

Hesse bio

If you’d like to read another post on Klingor’s Last Summer – here’s Pat’s (South of Paris Books) review.

Hermann Hesse: Rosshalde (1914)

Rosshalde

Published in 1914, Rosshalde is Hermann Hesse’s fourth novel. It tells the story of a failed marriage and the disillusionment of a painter. In many ways it’s a continuation of Gertrude. Both novels are autobiographical, Rosshalde even more so than Gertude. Hesse often tried to make sense of his own life in writing his books, that’s why critics call many of his narrators alter egos.

Johann Veraguth, the main character of Rosshalde, is a painter who is entirely dedicated to his art. The only love in his life is the love for his second son Pierre. He bought the estate Rosshalde many years ago when there was still hope for his marriage. At the beginning of the novel, he returns home one night on his own and looks at the dark house. He has moved out a long time ago and lives in his artist’s studio. He gets up very early every morning, paints until noon, then takes lunch with his wife and son and later paints again until the evening. He’s a rich and famous painter, lives a life of ease, surrounded by beautiful things, he even has servants but he’s very lonely. His wife is hard and distant and has never really understood how he could be so absorbed by his art. His first-born hates him and had to be sent to a boarding school. His best friend travels the world and only rarely returns to Europe. The only joy in his life is his little boy. If his wife allowed him to keep the boy, he would have divorced her a long time ago.

Veraguth is unhappy but he doesn’t even realize it. He’s a bit like a well-oiled machine. He produces one painting after the other, follows a strict routine. All this changes when his old friend pays him a visit. He’s shocked when he sees how Veraguth lives and tells him he has to leave. He cannot go on living in such loveless isolation. But Veraguth cannot make up his mind. He’s too attached to his boy. Nonetheless, he has to admit that his friend is right and before he leaves again, he tells him he might follow him to India and spend a couple of months with him.

I had very mixed feelings while reading this. I didn’t like the beginning all that much but from the middle on, I really started to love this book. I finished it a week ago and it’s still constantly on my mind. There’s so much to like here. But there’s also a lot that I didn’t like. I really loved the descriptions and being in Veraguth’s head when he contemplated nature, his garden, his art. Those passages reminded me of Mercè Rodoreda’s novel Jardí vora el mar. In both books, a solitary man lives in a small house, surrounded by a huge garden and follows the life that is led in the estate nearby. But these passages also reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out. The end of the novel has affected me quite a bit. I can’t really say anything without spoiling it – just this much – it’s very similar to The Voyage Out as well. I also liked how Hesse depicted Veraguth. The man’s so absorbed by his work, so self-centered, that he doesn’t even notice when his kid needs him, although the boy is the only really good thing in his life. Some of these scenes were written from the small boy’s point of view and were very sad.

What I didn’t like is the idea behind the novel. As I said earlier, it’s autobiographical and closely mirror’s Hesse and his wife’s marriage. From his biography I know that Hesse believed that artists – writers, painters, musicians – should never get married and live conventional lives. His own wife didn’t really understand him and having to provide for her and his three kids took its toll on him. Unfortunately, his views are so dated. His views on marriage, artists, and especially his views on gender. When you read about his views, it’s clear that the artist is always a man and the woman, who wants children and is dependent on him financially, will become a burden. Even so, Hesse thinks that the true failure of the marriage comes from the fact that an artist makes a poor companion. He’s too narcissistic, to self-absorbed. I couldn’t agree less. I’m sure there are artists like that but there are just as many narcissistic, self-absorbed people who don’t create anything. I’m afraid, it might have been a character trait Hesse struggled with. My problem with it is that he thinks it’s a universal problem, thinks that all artists are like that.

And then there’s the language. Hesse’s a very original writer. He creates words, uses new combinations but his German feels very old-fashioned, and his choice of words are at times too emotional, too sentimental. Don’t get me wrong, in spite of these negative aspects, I’m glad I read this and really loved it. But I had to ignore his views on men, women, artists, and marriage and just enjoy the amazing descriptions, the interior life of his protagonist and the terribly tragic story.

Rosshalde might be one of the best books for someone who hasn’t read Hesse and is a bit wary of his spirituality. Those who love him, do love him for that, but those who shy away from him or don’t appreciate him, often mention that aspect. Rosshalde isn’t like his later works in that regard. It talks about transcendence of some sort, but it isn’t meant in a religious way.

Have you read Rosshalde or any other of  Hesse’s books? Which is your favourite?

Welcome to Hermann Hesse Reading Week 7 – 13 March 2016

hesse revised

Today is the first day of Hermann Hesse Reading Week, here at my blog and over at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. I’ve been busy and have read a couple of books (Rosshalde, Klingsor’s letzter Sommer, Wanderung) and will write about them shortly. Pat (South of Paris Books) and I will both write about Klingsor on Thursday 10 March, so if anyone has read that too, try to  join our discussion.

If you participate, please use the Mr. Linky, so Karen and I can visit and comment. Just add your name (blog) + the name of the book you’ve read and then the link below.

I wish everyone a great week.