A Tardy German Literature Month Wrap-up and Radetzky March Readalong Announcement

Does anyone else feel November went fast? I only just wrote a welcome post to German Literature Month and now it’s already over. That’s not why I’m late though. I caught a nasty cold.

I’d like to thank everyone who participated. It’s always wonderful to see all of your choices and your enthusiasm. So, thank you very much.

If you haven’t done so already, please add your posts to the German Literature Month Site. I’m still playing catch up and Lizzy’s collecting links for a final wrap-up post.

If you haven’t seen Lizzy’s post, you might not know that we are planning a Readalong of Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March early next year. The date hasn’t been fixed yet, so I’d like to know what would work for you.

We would like to extend this readalong over the course of one month, posting weekly on predefined portions of the novel. There will be questions, for those who’d like to use them, that will facilitate discussion.

I hope you’ll join us.

And thanks again for your participation.

 

A Long Blue Monday by Erhard von Büren – Swiss Week Readalong

Published in 2013, A Long Blue Monday, is Erhard von Büren’s third novel. His earlier novels Wasp Days and Epitaph for a Working Man were published in 1989 and 2000 respectively. He lives in Solothurn, Switzerland.

A Long Blue Monday tells the story of Paul Ganter, a retired school teacher who has temporarily left his wife and taken an apartment in the city to write a book about Sherwood Anderson. Very possibly he could have done that at home, but we soon learn that this time out is about much more than just writing a book. He uses the time alone to delve into his feelings and memories and relives vividly an unhappy love story that happened over forty years ago, in the summer of 1959. That year he fell in love with Claudia, a girl from a very rich family and, in a desperate attempt to impress her, takes weeks off from school to write a trilogy of plays in the vein of the great American playwrights of the time. Every day he slaves over his work that seems to be a series of soliloquies put on paper. Once it is finished, he gives the play to his crush, hoping it will impress her. Sadly, just like all his other attempts at wooing her, this barely gets a reaction. Clearly, she’s not into him. Looking back, Ganter can’t help but admire the stamina of his younger self. And he realizes that while the result of his writing wasn’t successful, locking himself away, writing daily, going for long walks and experience the changes in the weather and nature surrounding him, was one of the most intense experiences of his life.

The story is told going back and forth in time. In the present, Paul spends a lot of time writing and reminiscing, but he also has long conversations with his daughter who discovers sides of her father she never knew existed. While the love story is central, it isn’t the most important aspect of Paul’s delving into his past. He also remembers vividly what it was like to come from a poor family, in which the men were battling alcoholism. He remembers how difficult it was to know what he wanted to do with his life and to achieve it. Trying to overcome the shortcomings of his upbringing, he became a master student. Unfortunately, for the longest time, he thought that he could master life and love just like he mastered school. This set him up to failure. Being shy didn’t help him either. Love and life choices are explored, but there’s one other important thing—the narrator’s intense love of American culture that finally leads him to become an English teacher and is now one of the reasons for his time out.

I hope my review will have told you several things—this is a very complex, rich book, but it’s neither straightforward, nor plot-driven. Funnily, for a novel that talks so much about American culture, it’s very unlike most American literature I know. It’s introspective and very quiet. Far more analysis of thoughts and feelings, than scenes and action. One could say, more telling than showing. The story meanders, goes back and forth in time, returns to certain events, adds additional information. Just like it happens to all of us in real life. We rarely remember events in a straightforward way.

I liked A Long Blue Monday very much. It’s a quiet book about a quiet, shy man, who feels strongly, struggles and fails, struggles some more, and then succeeds and finds meaning in all sorts of things. My favourite parts were the nature descriptions and if I had read this in English, you’d find dozens of quotes. The descriptions are lyrical and beautifully crafted. They are the most eloquent sign of the narrator’s rich interior life.

While reading A Long Blue Monday, I couldn’t help but think of another Swiss author, who writes similar descriptions— Robert Walser. If you know me, you know this is high praise.

I hope some of you have read this as well. I’m looking forward to the discussion.

Meet the Translator of A Long Blue Monday – Helen Wallimann

Helen Wallimann and Erhard von Büren working on a translation (Photo credit Silvia Reitz – Solothurner Woche)

 

As many of you know, our next readalong, on Wednesday, is dedicated to Erhard von Büren’s novel A Long Blue Monday. Since many of the readers of this blog are interested in the process of translation, I thought it would be great to do an interview with Erhard von Büren’s wife, Helen Wallimann, who is also his translator.

I enjoyed her answers very much and hope you will too.

 

 

 

Without any further ado — let’s welcome Helen Wallimann to the blog.

How did you become a literary translator?

That’s a long story! I was brought up in England by Swiss parents so I was bilingual from the start (English and Schwyzerdütsch, the Swiss-German dialect), and even believed that everyone spoke Schwyzerdütsch at home and English outside the family circle. As my father ran a hotel I knew, too, that different people spoke different kinds of English; so when we were in Lucerne just after the war I taught my little cousins how to get chewing-gum from US soldiers by asking – in what I mistakenly thought was slangy American English – “Any gum chum?”

As soon as I’d learned to read I became an avid reader. This would be useful later on: a translator needs to have an extensive vocabulary, particularly in her own language.

After graduating in French and German from Edinburgh University I worked in publishing in Munich, Paris and London, so I gained a lot of editorial experience. From 1973 to 2001 I was employed as a French and English teacher at the Kantonsschule Solothurn (similar to the old British grammar school), so I was indirectly but practically concerned with comparative linguistics – in fact one of my senior classes made fun of me because apparently one of my favourite sayings was “It’s not quite the same”.

In 1989-90 and again in 2002-03, I spent altogether two years teaching English at Chinese universities. After that I started to attend Chinese classes at the University of Zurich as an “unregistered student”. The second year I was there I attended a seminar on Modern Chinese Poetry. As there were only about half a dozen students in the class I had to take my turn at translating the poems. I was allowed to translate into English instead of German. As I’d retired from teaching I had plenty of free time, so I spent hours trying to produce correct translations in fluent English while preserving the poetic character of the originals. I found that it was something I loved doing. The professor liked my work and subsequently asked if I’d be willing to translate Swiss folk tales for a Chinese-English bilingual translation to be published in Hong Kong (Legends from the Swiss Alps). Later I translated various articles by Chinese artists, art critics and curators for two books on contemporary art in China. I also had the privilege of translating poems by the celebrated Hong Kong writer Leung Ping-kwan for a small book, The Visible and the Invisible: Poems (mccmcreations, Hong Kong),which was published when the poet was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Zurich.

After that I thought I might as well have a go at translating the first of the novels by my husband, Erhard von Büren. After all, I do understand German much better than Chinese!

Were there any particular challenges in translating Erhard von Büren?

I think translating literary texts always presents challenges. Take, for example the title of Epitaph for a Working Man, Erhard’s first novel, the story of the last year in an old man’s life as told by his son. The German title, Abdankung, has at least three meanings: resignation, abdication or, in Switzerland, funeral service or funeral oration. It also includes the word Dank (thanks). I found it impossible to translate the word adequately and had to invent a new title. That’s an example of the general problem of vocabulary: there’s often no exactly corresponding word in English, particularly for things like political institutions, traditional activities, food, even types of school – do English, American, Canadian etc. readers of  A Long Blue Monday all know what a Swiss “Gymnasium” is?

In Wasp Days there was an additional problem: each section has its own character, depending on its main theme. So the first section is made up mainly of straightforward narrative, the second one seems like a compendium of random notes and stories, the third is full of ironic description of academic research (here I had to be careful to use the right philosophical, ethnological, sociological, psychological etc. terms); the fourth section is mainly straightforward narrative again, but actually very ironic and funny: the fifth section is mainly made up of conversations; the sixth is more or less a stream of consciousness chapter, it’s also full of lyrical description. Finding the right tone for each section was quite a challenge!

Passages in A Long Blue Monday that were particularly difficult to translate were the lyrical ones that reoccur in the different seasons and describe fields of wheat or barley and the narrator’s mental turmoil as he strides through them.

Could you describe the process of translating A Long Blue Monday?

First of all, you must know that I don’t translate to earn a living. So I can take my time.

Of course I knew the book very well before I started on the translation in the autumn of 2016. So I just started at the beginning and worked through it. By March 2017 I’d completed a first draft which I subsequently sent to a friend in England for her comments. Then I did nothing on the book for a couple of months. The feedback from my friend didn’t arrive until the end of July. But by that time I’d carefully reread my translation and wasn’t at all satisfied with it. So I went through the whole book again with a fine tooth comb, reading the text aloud to make sure all the sentences adequately reflected the meaning and tone of the original, trying out different variants, revising, changing back… It was a slow process. But early in the new year I sent the revised manuscript to another friend in England for her comments. I finally sent the book off to the publishers at the beginning of March 2018.

Were there any passages in A Long Blue Monday where you needed to be creative because the German didn’t translate easily into English?

I’ve already mentioned the lexical problems. But of course there’s also the problem of German grammar and sentence structure: it’s very different from the English, so you just have to be creative if you want to produce a truly fluent translation. By chance I still have a few variations of the opening paragraph of the book. Here’s the German original.

Wie ich jeden Tag drei, vier Mal den Haselweg entlangging bis zum Wasserreservoir, einem mit Gras bewachsenen Erdwall an der Kreuzung vorne; wie ich dort links abbog und den steilen Feldweg Richtung Wald einschlug, am Waldrand entlangging bis zur Ecke oberhalb Langendorfs; wie ich zwischen zwei Feldern hindurch auf dem Trampelpfad die Strasse erreichte, die den Hang herauf- und hinüberführt zur Sagackerhöhe.

The very first phrase “Wie ich … den Haselweg entlangging” (How I … walked along Haselweg) is a problem for the translator. The German reader probably understands “(When I look back) I see myself walking along Haselweg three or four times a day…” How can you convey this in English without it sounding stilted?

Here are three of my many drafts, the first being a more or less literal translation.

  • How I’d walk along Haselweg three or four times a day as far as the reservoir, a grass-covered earth wall up at the crossing of paths; how I’d turn off left from there and take the steep track leading up to the wood, then follow the edge of the wood as far as the corner above Langendorf; how I’d continue along the footpath between two fields to reach the road that leads up the slope and across to Sagacker Heights.

 

  • Three or four times every day my walks along Haselweg as far as the reservoir, a grass-covered earthwork up at the crossing; turning off left there I’d take the steep track up to the wood and follow the edge of the wood as far as the corner overlooking Langendorf, then take the footpath between two fields to reach the road leading up the slope and across to Sagacker Heights.

 

  • Every day, three or four times, walking along Hazel Wood path as far as the reservoir, a grass-covered earthwork up at the crossing; turning off left there up the steep track to the wood; along the edge of the wood as far as the corner overlooking Langendorf; then along the footpath between two fields to reach the road that led up the slope and across to Sagacker Heights.

 

And here is the translation as it appears in the final publication. Note that, for the triple repetition of “wie ich…” – which is an important stylistic element in the original, I used “I’d…” three times.

 

Three or four times a day, I’d walk along Haselweg as far as the reservoir, a grass-covered mound up near the crossing; I’d turn left down the steep field path to the wood, then skirt the wood as far as the corner above Langendorf; from there I’d take the dirt track between two fields to reach the road that goes up the slope and across to Sagacker Heights.

Do you prefer to translate prose or poetry?

Poetry, really. Because you can spend a lot of time working on a poem: if you spent the same amount on each paragraph of a book, you’d never get to the end.  In general, if I’m not translating, I’m too impatient to reread poems several times, which is something you ought to do if you want to really appreciate a poem. So I get more out of a poem when I try to translate it. Also, it’s very satisfying to feel you might have found an adequate translation. It’s almost as though you’d written the poem yourself.

You are stranded on the proverbial desert island and you are allowed one book to take for translation purposes. Which would it be and why?

I hope it would be a nice Caribbean island and not the kind of island William Golding’s Pincher Martin landed on! Whatever, I’d want a book entitled something like “How to survive on a desert island”. Then, before starting with the translation, I’d search it for useful instructions on things like finding fresh water, opening coconuts, recognising what things are edible, making a fire, fishing, building a hut… And of course how to make signals so that you might be seen by passing ships, airplanes or satellites. Then, if the book proved to be useful but I still hadn’t been rescued, and also provided it gave instructions on how to make writing utensils and paper, I might translate it, just to pass the time. But probably I’d spend my free time writing a diary, hoping it might become a bestseller … if I ever got rescued.

*******

Thank you so much, Helen, for this fascinating insight into your work as a multilingual translator.

Some thoughts on Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb – Die Kapuzinergruft

Published in 1938, Die KapuzinergruftThe Emperor’s Tomb, was one of Joseph Roth’s last novels and the last that was published during his lifetime. Roth died in 1939, in exile, of the complications of a double pneumonia, that was possibly aggravated due to the sudden withdrawal of alcohol.

The Emperor’s Tomb tells the story of Franz Ferdinand Trotta and begins shortly before the first world war and ends with Austria’s Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany. In many ways the book can be seen as a sequel to The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth’s most famous novel. Usually I would write a brief summary but since this review is part of a readalong and since Emma has already posted an excellent summary of the book, I’ll skip this part and add a link to her post instead – here.

For this post, I’d like to focus on some topics I found of interest.

WWI

As many of the readers of this blog know/may remember, for many years, I hosted a Literature and War readalong. Roth had been a chosen author in the past, even though he doesn’t portray the war as such, as rather the mental state of war, or people during war time. I ususally like this approach but in this novel, it was puzzling for several reasons. As I said before, the book begins before WWI, in 1913, and ends in 1938. While Roth describes the time before and after the war years in great detail, things get blurry from 1914 to 1918, although, allegedly, Trotta spends his years in a Russian POW camp in Siberia. If you’d never read anything about any prisoner of war camps, reading this novel would make you think it was a bit of harsher version of a boy scout camp. There aren’t any details described. No fighting happens. This is puzzling, if not bizarre. My knowledge of war literature made me assume one thing – Roth spent his WWI years sheltered. Although I own a huge Roth biography, I haven’t read it yet, but I picked it up and overflew some passages that confirmed what I suspected. He was enlisted but since he was initially considered unfit for military service, he never saw any action, but spent the war years behind a desk. Apparently, to explain why he hadn’t seen any action during the war, he pretended that he had been in Russian captivity, which isn’t true. I think this shows clearly that he must have felt guilty. While I’m not familiar with his earlier years, I know a bit about his final years, and guilt has been a defining emotion for Roth. Once it’s clear that this is why the book is so unspecific when it comes to the actual war, one can move on and concentrate on other elements. As a portrayal of the end of an era and the end of a class system, this is absolutely brilliant and nuanced. And while Trotta’s war experience lacks realism, the way he feels when he comes home doesn’t, because the strong feeling of alienation and of being a stranger in one’s own country was something many Austrians felt at that time.

Women

Before going to war, Trotta marries a girl, Elisabeth, he’d been in love with for ages. Due to a sad story, involving a servant, the marriage isn’t consummated and his new wife flees, angry. When he returns from the war, she’s not exactly keen on seeing him. Like so many women back then, she’s learned to live a life according to her own choices. She certainly doesn’t want to abandon her freedom. And she is living with another woman with whom she clearly is in a physical relationship. Trotta isn’t happy about this but he’s not prejudiced. If it had been a man, it would have been the same to him. Only he might have felt more threatened as the only reason why his wife, in the end returns to him, is because she wants a child. Once the child is born, however, it doesn’t hold her back and she leaves it with his father. I found this surprisingly modern. I’m sure Roth was freethinking when it came to relationships, but I also think that Elisabeth is a character that was quite common at the time. It’s sad to think that so much of that freedom was lost again later.

Austrian pre-war diversity

I don’t think I’ve ever read an author that made me realize just how diverse the Austro-Hungarian Empire was. It was a multinational state, with people speaking different languages, following different religions. In this book Trotta, who is descendant of the non-aristocratic line of the “von Trottas”, feels a stronger connection with the peasant side of his family. While he’s called “Herr Baron”, he doesn’t identify with the aristocracy. When a cousin from Sipolje comes to claim a part of his inheritance, he also introduces Trotta to a friend. That friend invites Trotta to spend time with him in Galicia. Then the war breaks out. Trotta suddenly feel estranged from his former aristocratic friends and asks to be transferred to the regiment in which his cousin and the friend serve. Back in Vienna, after the war, Trotta mourns not only the past but the missed opportunity. He believes that Austria-Hungary could have been a really great state, especially due to its diversity, but instead, it only chose the German part.

Final thoughts

This is a flawed book. The structure is uneven and the war section is so far from realistic, it’s almost painful. Nonetheless, I loved this book. I love Roth’s writing, the mournful tone, his description, his humanity. And there’s also some gentle humour. Roth is outstanding at showing people’s quirks. The portrait of the mother in this book, is an excellent example. At first, she’s very rooted in her old ways, but once change has come, she embraces it and enjoys it because it means there’s new life, where there was only stuffiness before. Sadly, it’s all an illusion, but she’ll never really find out.

I’m glad, Lizzy chose this novel for her readalong. You can find her thoughts here.

This was my fifth Joseph Roth novel and so far, I’ve liked them all. If you’re interested, here are my reviews of Weights and MeasuresHotel Savoy and of Flight Without End.I’ve read The Radetzky March pre-blogging.

Simone Buchholz – Blue Night – Blaue Nacht – German Literature Month Crime Readalong

Blue NightBlaue Nacht is the sixth book in Simone Buchholz’ Chastity Riley series and the first to be translated into English. I discovered the book last year in a book shop, not realizing it was part of a series, or I would have started with book one. Oddly, the English translation has the subtitle “Chastity Riley book 1”. Be it as it may, I’m so glad I finally read it. I love noir and this is noir at its best.

State attorney Chastity Riley has done a few stupid things and so she’s not working in the state attorney’s department anymore but for the witness protection. This bores her no end. Feeling she needs some change, she takes her car and drives to the country. The car breaks down and Chastity is stranded somewhere on the road. Where other people would look for the beauty around them, all she sees is a lack of streets and people. And too much countryside. Yikes. Barely gone for a few minutes, she misses Hamburg, the Reeperbahn, the seedy haunts, her ex-gangster lover Klatsche, and the bars where she drinks until the early hours. This beginning sets the tone and introduces a character who is witty, sarcastic, laconic, lyrical, and always different.

Back in Hamburg, she’s assigned to look after a man who has almost been killed. He’s been beaten up severely and has lost one finger. It looks a lot like retribution. With cunning, kindness, and a lot of beer, Chastity manages to get his trust. While he doesn’t reveal his identity, he gives her enough information to begin investigating a crime ring.

The story is definitely interesting and offers a look into the drug problems big cities with large ports like Hamburg face these days. Cheap, dangerous drugs, produced in the East, are distributed in the West with maximum profit. The people in charge are able to wash their money and while everyone knows it, the law can’t touch them.

As interesting as the story is, it pales in comparison to the cast of characters and the style. Chastity Riley is a loner at heart but one with a crowd of friends. Some were formerly criminals, some are policemen, bar tenders, restaurant owners. A charming element of the book is that they all get a voice. In between the regular chapters are chapters in which each of the protagonists, including the nameless man, the criminals, Chastity and her friends get their say. In some books this type of approach doesn’t work, but here it lifts the book to another level.

I read a lot of crime novels this year, but this is the one I liked the most. The voice is so unique, the style so brilliant that it can keep up with a lot of literary fiction that is published these days. And the mood and tone are reminiscent of some of the best noir I’ve read in recent years.

I read this in German, that’s why there are no quotes. Please visit Pat’s blog (added below) to get an idea of the style

Other reviews:

Pat – South of Paris Books

 

Mechthild Gläser’s The Book Jumper – Die Buchspringer – German Literature Month Readalong

The Book Jumper is a children’s book by German author Mechthild Gläser.

Amy and her mother flee Bochum to take refuge on a forgotten Shetland island. Years ago, when she was pregnant with Amy, her mother left the island just as helter-skelter as they left Bochum now. Amy never knew why. She also never knew her dad. The island, the castle, and Amy’s grandmother are all very mysterious, but not as mysterious as learning that Amy is a book jumper, like everyone in her family. Book jumping is an important ability that gets lost once people get older. Together with two other young people Amy is taught in the art of book jumping. In the beginning book jumping novices have to stick to a favourite book. In Amy’s case that’s The Jungle Book. She is told that it’s important not to stray from the path of the story or to interfere with it. The book jumpers are vital for literature because they have to make sure that the stories remain exactly as they were originally written down.

Among other things, Amy is taught that she can only jump into a book from a specific spot and when she puts the open book on her face. She realizes soon, that this isn’t a necessity for her. She can jump into any book pretty much from wherever she wants. Already on her first jump into the jungle book, she strays from her path and meets Goethe’s Werther. Together with him, she travels in the no-man’s-land between different stories or enters other novels, like Alice in Wonderland. It doesn’t take long until she realizes that there’s something wrong in the land of literature. It seems that a thief is stealing ideas and important story lines get either jumbled or lost. Together with Werther and Will, another book jumper, Amy tries to catch the thief. Unfortunately, the thief is quite dangerous. He kills a beloved literary character and, in the end, even attempts to kill Amy and her grandmother. I can’t really tell much more without spoiling the story.

When Lizzy proposed to read this, I really liked the premise of the book. The idea to jump into your favourite novels, meet favourite characters was so appealing. Sadly, this didn’t work for me. I read it pretty quickly, it had some amusing moments and characters, especially Werther, but it felt quite lifeless. Even the love story between Will and Amy, did only work at first. The solution to the story felt forced. The only thing I liked, was Amy’s back story.

The book is initially amusing, but not exactly a must-read. Something was missing. It may sound weird, but it isn’t fantastical enough. I also didn’t like that Mechthild Gläser spoils a few classic stories by giving away the ending. On top of that, the German blurb is misleading. We’re led to believe Amy will become friends with Elizabeth Bennett, but she only sees her once and very briefly. I hope others enjoyed this more than I did.