Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong – Part 1

Due to some time constraints this and next week, my post is very short.

Welcome to the #germanlitmonth readalong of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.  What enticed you to readalong with us?

When I buy a book in a bookshop, I sometimes keep the receipt. I did so in this case and that’s how I know that the book has been on my shelves for 19 years. I bought it in September 2000. I know that when I bought it, I was extremely keen on reading it. But for some reason I didn’t and because I always felt it was a book that had to be read during autumn – possibly because I visited Berlin in autumn – I postponed it from year to year. When Lizzy mentioned she wanted to read it during this GLM, I decided that the time had finally come.

Summarise your initial expectations.  Are they being met?

It’s pretty much how I expected it. Highly readable in some places, and more experimental in others. I struggled more reading the first book than I thought I would. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, but once I made more time for reading it and saw certain patterns in the storytelling emerge, I was captivated.

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading? If you’re reading the original German, is there anything noteworthy about Döblin’s language?

I’m reading the German original and am constantly thinking that it’s almost impossible to translate this adequately because of the extensive use of Berlin vernacular. But since Döblin uses a collage/montage technique there are other challenges. He uses bits from songs, slogans, poetry, and many other sources. Occasionally he uses them verbatim, quite often though, he changes words. Of course, you can translate them, but they won’t mean the same to a foreign reader. With the changes, they might even be more unrecognizable. I was also wondering, if the translators really caught all the allusions and quotes. They would have to be extremely knowledgeable about German culture and literature

The more descriptive passages, especially those in which the narrator/author are present are very beautiful. There’s a rhythm and sound to his sentences that’s unique. The choice of words is very careful.

What are your first impressions of Berlin and Franz Biberkopf?

Because of the way Döblin chose to tell this story, I think of Franz as a guinea pig or a marionette. I feel like I see the threads, the author is using to make him move. I can’t think of him as a real person at all. Interestingly, I feel very differently about Berlin. The city comes across as more of person than Franz. The city comes to life. One has the feeling of experiencing a particular moment in a very particular place.

Welcome to German Literature Month IX 2019

Welcome all! It’s that glorious time of the year again – a full month of Germanic literary indulgence! This is just a quick admin post as there may be newcomers who wonder how this event works.

1. Read anything you want in any language you want … as long as the material was originally written in German.

2. You can follow the themed reading schedule, or ignore it completely by reading as you please for the entire month.

3. If you’re joining in the Berlin Alexanderplatz readalong, please leave an email address to receive the readalong discussion questions.

4. Share what you are reading and what you felt about it by using the tag #germanlitmonth on your blog posts, tweets, instagram shots or booktube videos.

5. Please add a link to each review on the linky at www.germanlitmonth.blogspot.com. (This is an invaluable help when pulling together the author index at the end of the event. Check out the indices from previous years if you’re looking for something to read.)

6. Have fun!

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong – German Literature Month 2019

In order to commemorate the centennial of the founding of the Weimar Republic, Lizzy and I are hosting a readalong of Berlin Alexanderplatz  during German Literature Month 2019. Döblin’s tale is one the seminal novels (if not the seminal novel) of that era.

We will discuss the novel over 4 weeks and we are intending to send out discussion questions a week in advance of each date. You can answer these or post your own thoughts, entirely as you please. If you’re intending to participate, please leave a comment and your email below.

The schedule is as follows.  (Each section is circa 100-140 pages in the NYRB classics edition.)

Saturday 9.11.2019 Chapters 1-2

Saturday 16.11.2019 Chapters 3-5

Saturday 23.11.2019 Chapters 6-7

Saturday 30.11.2019 Chapters 8-9

Announcing German Literature Month 2019

2019 is a significant year in terms of German history, both actual and literary. It’s

  • 30 years since the Fall of the Wall;
  • 100 years since the Founding of the Weimar Republic; and
  • 200 years since publication of Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan.

Lizzy and I have decided to include all of the above into the plan for GLM IX!

To commemorate The Fall of the Wall there will be an ex-DDR week. For the founding of the Weimar Republic, the badge has been converted to Bauhaus-favoured sans serif typography and we will host a readalong of Alfred Döblin’s seminal Berlin Alexanderplatz. Last, but definitely not least, there will be a Goethe Reading Week.

There will also be plenty of read-as-you-please time so you can choose from the whole gamut of German-language literary pleasures (writing from outside Germany, historical and crime fiction, graphic novels, etc) entirely according to your heart’s desire.

The reading schedule looks like this:

01-02.11.19 Read as You please
03-09.11.19 Ex-DDR week
10-16.11.19 Read as You Please
17-23.11.19 Goethe Reading Week
24-30.11.19 Read as You Please

 

The Berlin Alexanderplatz readalong will take place on 4 Saturdays commencing on 9.11. More details and sign-up post to follow shortly.

As always, to participate in German Literature Month you can stick to the plan, pick and choose only the parts that interest you, or follow your own path entirely. You can read in any language you want. The only rule is that whatever you read must have originally been published in German.

All that remains now, is for you to search through your shelves, your library catalogues or maybe undertake a shopping expedition! German Literature Month IX will be here before you know it! Will you join us?


 

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark (1970)

Muriel Spark is one of those authors that’s hit or miss for me. I liked the first two books I’ve read (pre-blogging) – Girls of Slender Meansand The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Especially the first was a favourite the year I read it. The next one I picked was Territorial Rights– you can find my review here – and it was the first I really didn’t like. And now The Driver’s Seat is the second. I know it’s a favourite of many people, but I found it cold, sly, and just didn’t like the way it was told. Yes, it has amazing moments and I enjoyed some of the slyness but overall, it’s not my thing. That said, I can see why someone would like it, as it’s quite whacky and the writing is strong.

The book starts with Lise looking for the perfect dress. When  she is told by a salesperson that the one she’s been trying on doesn’t stain because it’s made of a special fabric, Lise loses it completely. From that moment on the reader knows that something’s very wrong with Lise. Two pages after this intro we find this passage, and it’s an excellent example of Spark’s slyness – and cleverness.

Her lips are slightly parted: she, whose lips are usually pressed together with the daily disapprovals of the accountants’ office where she has worked continually, except for the months of illness, since she was eighteen, that is to say, for sixteen years and some months. Her lips, when she does not speak or eat, are normally pressed together like the ruled line of a balance sheet, marked straight with her old-fashioned lipstick, a final and judging mouth, a precision instrument.

As a reader we’re so fascinated by the description of Lise, that we might overread the little aside about her illness. We sympathize with someone who’s spent her youth at an office she clearly doesn’t like, doing a boring, tedious job. We also sympathize with her wish to organize the perfect holiday, down to the perfect holiday attire. But then we see her in action, see how she reacts to people, talks to people and how she chooses a garish outfit that will make her look like a cross between a striped lollipop and an old-fashioned prostitute. So clearly, the illness is very important and it’s easy to see what kind of illness that might have been.

From the beginning of the novel we know what will happen to Lise. We’re informed by the narrator who, at times stays a pure observer, but, then again, becomes omniscient and foreshadows or reveals the outcome of the book. Lise will get into trouble. She will be found murdered. This isn’t a spoiler, as it’s revealed early on. Just after the narrator has dropped that bomb on us, he/she retreats and describes his creature from outside.

I was keen to find out, what went wrong and how Lise got herself killed. The end is surprising and echoes that first passage I quoted above.

So, there’s humour here, there’s an oddly fascinating character who plays roles, speaks in many different accents, does a lot of very outlandish thing, and courts danger. So, you may wonder – what’s not to like?

It was the tone of the book. I’m usually fond of characters behaving so wildly. But I didn’t care for the way Spark described “her creature”, like a scientist who describes a butterfly he’s just spiked. At times it is humorous. We’ve all seen people behave strangely. Because they were drunk or because they were crazy or just eccentrics and that can be very entertaining. But watching them like this also lacks empathy. It’s unkind and cold. Territorial Rights had a similar tone, similar slyness. Those who love Spark will say, yes, but that tone is exactly the point. I’m sure it is, but it’s too cold for me. That said, I will read her again because she’s a clever writer and says a lot about many themes – gender relations, things that we’re topical at the time like macrobiotic food, the way society reacts when someone doesn’t fit in. And I like how she disobeys many of the writing rules that are usually taught in writing classes these days.

To do this book justice, which I feel, I might not have done, I leave you with two quotes that show how strong Sparks’ writing is.  One quote is from a very humorous scene. The other one is one of those short things Lise says that reveal more than whole passages in other books.

The chandeliers of the Metropole, dispensing a vivid glow upon the just and unjust alike, disclose Bill the macrobiotic seated gloomily by a table near the entrance. He jumps up when Lise enters and falls upon her with a delight that impresses the whole lobby, and in such haste that a plastic bag he is clutching, insufficiently sealed, emits a small trail of wild rice in his progress towards her.

And here’s Lise. This is another “sly” quote as we suddenly get a look into Lise’s state of mind that’s more telling than most of what she does.

“It makes me sad”, she says. “I want to go home, I think. I want to go back home and feel all that lonely grief again. I miss it so much already.”

Mapp and Lucia by E. F. Benson (1931)

Feeling a little under the weather a couple of weeks ago, I decided I needed something to cheer me up. E. F. Benson’s much-loved novel Mapp and Lucia seemed an excellent choice. I didn’t expect to have such a peculiar reading experience though. Mapp and Lucia has been on my piles for ages and ever since I got it, I saw people mention it as a novel they loved. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was planning to read it, the reactions were enthusiastic. Logically, I was sure, I would love it but for the first hundred pages I did not only not love it, I almost hated it. And then, I still don’t know why, I started to like it so much, that I still miss reading it. I believe that’s what some people call a book hangover.

At the beginning of the novel, we find Lucia and her best-friend Georgie, still in Riseholm, where Lucia owns the most beautiful house and occupies the centre of the social life. That is, she did before her husband died. While he’s been dead for over a year, Lucia felt it was her duty to still live like a recluse. But enough is enough and she’s planning to re-enter Riseholm’s social life and be its queen again. Georgie who missed her shenanigans, is happy that she’s finally back. We’re led to believe that her mourning was only in part real, a lot of it was just for show. And so are most things with Lucia. She does and says so much just for show and to grab the attention of the people around her. One of the funniest things she does for show, is pretending that she speaks Italian. She addresses Georgie, and other people, constantly with little Italian sentences and phrases, exclaims her joy or distaste in Italian morsels. The people of Riseholm and Tilling admire and envy her for that.

After reclaiming the Riseholm stage, Lucia is soon bored and wishes to conquer new territory. She decides to rent Mallard, the most beautiful house in Tilling. The house belongs to Miss Mapp, the centre of Tilling’s social life. Just like Lucia, she’s an attention-grabber, self-centred to the max, and never shies away from thinking about her own advantage. It’s the custom amongst the Tilling upper middle-class to sublet their homes in summer. Mallard being the most expensive one, it’s rented to foreigners; the next in line, Diva’s house, is taken by Miss Mapp. Diva rents someone else’s, and so on. Luckily for Lucia, Georgie decides to rent Mallard cottage and join her for the summer. He will prove, once more, to be her most ardent ally.

At first, things are amicable enough, but soon Lucia isn’t satisfied anymore and wants to become the centre of Tilling. Things are a bit different here though. While there was no real competition for her in Riseholm, there’s formidable Miss Mapp in Tilling to be reckoned with. She’s the most important person in Tilling and there’s nothing that she doesn’t preside over, nothing she doesn’t decide, much to the annoyance of some of the other inhabitants of Tilling. Lucia might always have wanted to become Tilling’s most influential person, but having competition spurs her on even more. In Miss Mapp, she’s found her match. While things don’t often turn out the way Miss Mapp has planned, she still wins more than one small skirmish in this war.

As I said, initially, I hated the book because I found the characters obnoxious and nasty. But once the reader gets to see behind Lucia’s mask and Miss Mapp defeats her more than once, it’s more and more enjoyable.

And there’s life at Tilling. A carefree life that’s so different from most of our lives nowadays. Not only because it’s set before WWII, but because it’s set among the British upper middleclass. Nobody works in this book. All the main characters own beautiful houses. All they think about is, where they will dine next, who gives the best tea party. Gossip and petty quarrels aside, it’s a peaceful world. The conflicts are entirely the character’s own making. Nothing dramatic ever comes from outside. At least not until the end. After a while, I found spending time in this world very comforting. And funny. It’s a terrific social comedy. Lucia’s pretence to know Italian is hilarious and so is the way they constantly try to outsmart each other.

When I got the book, I wasn’t aware that it was part of a series, and not even the first in the series, but the fourth. Luckily, it works very well as a stand-alone. As far as I know, this is the first of these books that feature both Lucia and Miss Mapp.

Has anyone read other books in this series? Are they just as good?

Will and Testament (Arv og miljø) by Vigdis Hjorth (2016) – Norwegian Literature

From the blurb: “Four siblings. Two summer houses. One terrible secret. To what degree should the horrors of the past be allowed to shake the present? Stalked by the darkest of shadows from her childhood, a woman struggles against the tide dragging her back to the family she fled years ago. This emotionally searing novel is at once a wrenching look at a family fractured and a meditation on the nature of trauma and memory.”

Norwegian writer Vigdis Hjorth’s is very well known in her home country. She has written over twelve novels and won many prestigious Scandinavian prizes. I came across her name in a Swiss newspaper where she was mentioned as one of Norway’s most notable authors. Since it’s still Women in Translation Month, I thought she’d be a good choice. 

Will and Testament was a huge success in Norway, and I can see why. It’s highly literary but nonetheless as captivating as a thriller. The plot is moving back and forth in time, slowly revealing the dark secrets at the heart of the dysfunctional family depicted in the novel.

Bergljot, our fifty-something first-person narrator, hasn’t seen her parents for twenty-three years, when she’s informed that her father has died. Already before his death, her siblings tried to involve her in their dispute about their parent’s will. Even though, their parents had promised, they would evenly divide their possessions among the four siblings, they clearly changed their mind as the two coveted holiday homes on the Norwegian seaside go to Bergljot’s younger sisters. Bergljot’s older brother is very upset about this and tries to convince Bergljot to take his side. While she too, is sad that her children won’t have the opportunity to spend their summers in one of the homes, she understands why her parents decided to act as they did. After their father’s death, the discussion is renewed and gets even more heated.

Jumping back and forth in time, Bergljot tells the story of her life and reveals, bit by bit, why she chose to break with her parents. When the two younger sisters were only babies, but the older ones seven and ten respectively, something terrible happened. Something that both parents wished the children had forgotten. Unfortunately, Bergljot’s’ turbulent love life leads her start a therapy and, so, the distant memory resurfaces. She confronts her parents, but they both deny anything has happened. To keep her own sanity, she breaks with them.

The secret, which is finally revealed, isn’t very surprising. Most readers will guess it from the beginning. And if that was all the book had to offer, I wouldn’t have been as impressed with it as I was. But it has so much more to offer. The character portraits, especially those of Bergljot and her mother are fantastic. The mother is one of those crazy, dysfunctional, larger-than-life mothers that populate so many books about dysfunctional families. For me she was especially chilling because she did and said a few things that sounded so much like my own mother that it made me shiver. She doesn’t live her life, she performs it. She lies and manipulates, is cruel and mean and distorts the truth to her own advantage.

The book reveals the intricate family dynamics in a truly admirable way. It also shows that when there are several siblings, each one of them might see the parents completely differently, have a totally different relationship with them. In Will and Testament it’s Bergljot’s tragedy, that her parents know very well that they treated Bergljot and her brother badly. Because they knew this and because they wanted to repress the memories, they treated the younger girls differently. By the time Bergljot accuses her parents, and drops the bomb, as she says, the younger sisters are firmly on the parent’s side.

I can imagine how painful it must be, to see a repressed memory resurface and then be told, you made it up. I could imagine that, for the longest time, one would doubt oneself. The reasons why Bergljot knows she’s remembering correctly is because she’s so damaged. She drinks far too much, falls for the wrong men. But she’s a terrific mother and her children are behind her all the time. Not for one second do they doubt her.

It took me a few pages to get into this book because it isn’t told chronologically, but once I got the structure, I liked it very much. I was impressed by the intricate way the family dynamics are described and by the subtle psychological insights. And while some of it is dark, it’s never depressing. Bergljot may be damaged but she’s true to herself and courageous. It’s not easy to face a hostile family front.

Will and Testament will be out in English in September. If you like stories about dysfunctional families, you shouldn’t miss this.