Uwe Timm: In My Brother’s Shadow – Am Beispiel meines Bruders (2003)

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Maybe you’ve never heard of Timm’s novella The Invention of Curried Sausage. If you haven’t, do yourself a favour and get it because it’s marvellous. Possibly because I loved that novella so much, I stayed away from In My Brother’s ShadowAm Beispiel meines Bruders, although I’d been keen on reading it since it came out in 2003. There’s not one reader or critic who doesn’t think it’s essential reading. But we all know how it goes – everyone praises something, and one has read another book by an author that one loved  . . . I’m glad I finally overcame my reluctance because if ever a book was essential reading – then it’s this one. And for many reasons, not only as a brilliant WWII and post-war memoir.

In his memoir In My Brother’s Shadow, Timm doesn’t only try to reconstruct his brother’s life and find out who he really was, but examines his own family and the German post-war society. Timm was born in 1940, the third and last child of his parents. His sister and brother were both over sixteen years older. His brother Karl-Heinz was his father’s favourite. When Karl-Heinz was severely wounded and later died in 1943, on the Eastern Front, in the Ukraine, his father was devastated. The older son was everything he’d wished for. He would take over his business. He was courageous and heroic, unlike little Timm who’s squeamish and dreamy.

Although soldiers weren’t allowed to write a diary, Karl-Heinz did and after he died of his wounds, it was sent back to his parents.

When he’s almost sixty and both of his parents and sister dead, Uwe Timm, rereads the diary and the brother’s letters and decides to write this memoir.

It is clear from the beginning that he doesn’t consider his brother to be a hero. He’s too shocked by some of the diary entries. They are cold and devoid of any compassion with the soldiers and civilians he kills. Karl-Heinz is a member of the SS Panzer Division Totenkopf (Skull and Crossbones). One of the SS’s notorious elite divisions. But what shocks Timm even more, and that’s because it’s also part of the post-war mindset, are the omissions. He knows his brother was present when some of the most horrific extermination operations went on, but he doesn’t mention anything. And in the end, he even stops writing his diary because, as he writes, it doesn’t make sense to write about awful things.

Reading Timm’s account, you can feel that he was ashamed and horrified that he had a brother like this. And he’s ashamed and horrified because of the way people spoke right after the war. Many found it perfectly OK that Jews were killed and were only angry about losing the war. Many others said they “didn’t know” but it was clear they had only chosen not to know.

The silence and passivity of the masses disgusted Timm. He also found out that many soldiers were given a choice whether they wanted to be part of a firing squad or not. Hardly anyone said no. Interestingly though, saying no, had absolutely no consequences. They didn’t choose to fire people because they were scared but simply because they wanted to.

Timm also explores his father’s authoritarian education methods which were pretty typical for that time. Kids had to obey and if they didn’t  they were slapped, hit or worse. Psychologists have found out a long time ago that this “black pedagogy” as it is called was one of the reasons why Hitler and Nazism were so successful.

While the book is harsh on his family and many other Germans, it still captures the suffering. His family, like so many others, lost everything when Hamburg was destroyed in ’43. For many years they lived in a cellar.

In My Brothers’ Shadow is also amazing as a book about writing a memoir. What it means to dig deeper and find family secrets. It’s not surprising, he was only able to write about everything so honestly, after his parents and sister were dead.

Uwe Timm is a wonderful, stylish writer that’s why this memoir has many poetic elements. It is a fascinating and touching story of a German family.

One thing that Timm’s elegant and poignant memoir illustrates admirably well – silence is political. Looking the other way is not innocence it’s complicity. This should be self-evident, unfortunately, it wasn’t then and it’s still not now. I’m glad I finally read this memoir. Especially just after Kempowski’s novel. They are great companion pieces.

Literature and War Readalong November 2016 Meets German Literature Month: All For Nothing – Alles umsonst by Walter Kempowski

All For Nothing

The last title of this year’s Literature and War Readalong is Walter Kempowski’s All For Nothing – Alles umsonst. It was Kempowski’s last novel. Walter Kempowski was born in 1929 in Rostock and died in 2007 in Rotenburg. He was famous for his autobiographical novels, one of which Tadellöser & Wolff, was made into a mini-series, and his huge project Echo Soundings – Echolot, subtitled “A collective diary”. In this project he collected and juxtaposed excerpts of diaries, letters ,and documents to illustrate and capture history.

Here is the first sentence of All for Nothing

The Georgenhof estate was not far from Mitkau, a small town in East Prussia, and now, in winter, the Georgenhof, surrounded by old oaks, lay in the landscape like a black island in a white sea.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

All For Nothing – Alles umsonst by Walter Kempowski, 352 pages, Germany 2006, WWII

Here’s the blurb:

Winter, January 1945. It is cold and dark, and the German army is retreating from the Russian advance. Germans are fleeing the occupied territories in their thousands, in cars and carts and on foot. But in a rural East Prussian manor house, the wealthy von Globig family tries to seal itself off from the world. Peter von Globig is twelve, and feigns a cough to get out of his Hitler Youth duties, preferring to sledge behind the house and look at snowflakes through his microscope. His father Eberhard is stationed in Italy – a desk job safe from the front – and his bookish and musical mother Katharina has withdrawn into herself. Instead the house is run by a conservative, frugal aunt, helped by two Ukrainian maids and an energetic Pole. Protected by their privileged lifestyle from the deprivation and chaos around them, and caught in the grip of indecision, they make no preparations to leave, until Katharina’s decision to harbour a stranger for the night begins their undoing. Superbly expressive and strikingly vivid, sympathetic yet painfully honest about the motivations of its characters, All for Nothing is a devastating portrait of the self-delusions, complicities and denials of the German people as the Third Reich comes to an end.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 25 November 2016.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Welcome to German Literature Month

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Finally it’s November. Those of you who follow my blog might have noticed I was a bit quiet in the last weeks. With good reason. I was busy reading German, Austrian, and Swiss literature.

As you know, Lizzy and I have decided to do a “Read as you please month” with only two themed weeks.

A crime week during week two, hosted by Lizzy.

All For Nothing

The Literature and War Readalong on November 25, in which we read and discuss Walter Kempowski’s WWII novel All For Nothing – Alles umsonst.

For those who are still looking for titles, here are the books I have already read and those I’m still planning to read.

Weit über das Land

Peter Stamm’s latest novel. I must admit, I might not review it. It’s the worst book I’ve read this year. I can still not believe he wrote something like this.

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Judith Hermann’s new short story collection Lettipark. I’ve not finished this yet but I can already see that it’s a mixed bag.

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Karen Köhler’s short story collection Wir haben Raketen geangelt.

I bought this collection a while ago but haven’t read it yet. When I was looking for reviews of Judith Hermann’s book I saw it mentioned a few times. Most critics came to the conclusion that readers would do better to read Köhler instead of Hermann. I’ll let you know what I think.

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I’ve only heard great things about Uwe Timm’s memoir In My Brother’s ShadowAm Beispiel meines Bruders. As far as I can tell, (I read the beginning), it’s amazing.

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Almost Like SpringFast ein bisschen Frühling, is my first Alex Capus and if the rest is as good as the beginning, it won’t be my last.

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Last year I read Ursula Poznanski’s Erebos and was pretty much blown away. While I liked Five – Fünf a bit less, it’s still a really gripping book. You may have noticed that her adult crime novels are published under another name, Ursula P. Archer, in English. If you’re still looking for a page turner for crime week and are not too squeamish, you’ll enjoy this.

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These are my plans so far. I might add some Walter Benjamin and one of the fantasy novels by Nina Blazon Der Winter der schwarzen Rosen (not translated yet).

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I hope you’re all busy making plans and wish you all a great month. I hope you’ll discover a lot of great books. Happy Reading!

 

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There will be a few giveaways.

Here’s a sneak peek.

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Please add your reviews to this site German Literature Month.

Announcing German Literature Month VI

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“Who would want to be without Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month?” asks Sally-Ann Spencer in the 20th anniversary edition of New Books in German. The good news is that neither Lizzy nor I want to be without it. So it is our great pleasure to announce that German Literature Month VI is now inked in our diaries for this coming November.
Albeit a little less structured than in previous iterations. We’ve learned that regular participants are not short of ideas, and love to read as they please.  So that’s what German Literature Month VI is about. Fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, novellas, short stories, plays, poetry, classic or contemporary, written by male or female, the choice is yours. As long as the original work was written in German, read as you please, and enjoy yourselves!
That said, there are a couple of scheduled activities for those who like to take part in group readings.
1)  Lizzy will be hosting a Krimi week during week two, concentrating mainly on Austrian and Swiss crime fiction. (If anyone is looking for a cracking read to discuss that week, she recommends Ursula P Archer’s Five.)
2) I have scheduled a Literature and War readalong for Friday 25 November. The book for discussion is Walter Kempowski’s All For Nothing.
We are very much looking forward to this, and hope you will join us. Don’t forget to tell us your plans. There’s often as much fun in the planning as there is in the reading!
If you need ideas – go to the German Literature Page on this blog or to the GLM blog.

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.

Final Giveaways and Looking Back on German Literature Month 2015

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It feels as if I only just posted the intro to German Literature Month 2015. It’s hard to believe the month is already over.

And what a month it was. So many great posts. We have a total of 157 contributions. I’m not really into statistics, so I can’t tell you whether that’s more or less than last year – be it as it may, it’s a lot.

Thank you so much for your enthusiasm.

I haven’t read as much as I wanted, nor have I been able to visit everyone, but I’m still doing my rounds.

As a thank you to all of you, I’m giving away two books from Pushkin Press.

A Chess Story

Stefan Zweig’s A Chess Story

Chess world champion Mirko Czentovic is travelling on an ocean liner to Buenos Aires. Dull-witted in all but chess, he entertains himself on board by allowing others to challenge him in the game, before beating each of them and taking their money. But there is another passenger with a passion for chess: Dr B, previously driven to insanity during Nazi imprisonment by the chess games in his imagination. But in agreeing to take on Czentovic, what price will Dr B ultimately pay?

A moving portrait of one man’s madness, A Chess Story is a searing examination of the power of the mind and the evil it can do.

The Sorrows of Young W.

Ulrich Plenzdorf’s The Sorrows of Young W. A retelling of Goethe’s famous novel, set in GDR. It’s often called a GDR Catcher in the Rye.

‘I was just a regular idiot, a nutcase, a show-off and all that. Nothing to cry about. Seriously’

Edgar W., teenage dropout, unrequited lover, unrecognized genius – and dead – tells the story of his brief, spectacular life.

It is the story of how he rebels against the petty rules of communist East Germany to live in an abandoned summer house, with just a tape recorder and a battered copy of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther for company. Of his passionate love for the dark-eyed, unattainable kindergarten teacher Charlie. And of how, in a series of calamitous events (involving electricity and a spray paint machine), he meets his untimely end.

Absurd, funny and touching, this cult German bestseller, now in a new translation, is both a satire on life in the GDR and a hymn to youthful freedom.

Ulrich Plenzdorf was born in Berlin in 1934, and studied Philosophy and Film in Leipzig. In the early 1970s, he achieved fame with the much acclaimed The New Sorrows of Young W., considered a modern classic of German literature and taught in classrooms across Germany. From 2004 onwards, Plenzdorf was a guest lecturer at the German Institute of Literature in Leipzig. An award-winning and much celebrated author and dramatist, he died in 2007.

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All you have to do is tell me which book you’d like to win and why. The giveaways are open internationally. I’ll announce the winners on Monday 7 December 17:00 – Western European time.

This Giveaway is now closed!