Devotion – Die Widmung by Botho Strauss – A 1977 Club Review

I’m notoriously bad these days when it comes to participating in blogging events, but I always try to read at least one book for Karen and Simon’s “Club” – no matter what year they choose. This week was dedicated to 1977. It was a particularly good year and I could have chosen many books from my piles. I picked Botho Strauss’ novella DevotionDie Widmung because I’ve had it for ages and because it was said to be a stellar piece of writing.

Botho Strauss was first known as a playwright before he started to write fiction. DevotionDie Widmung is considered one of his best works. It tells the story of Richard Schroubek who has been abandoned by his girlfriend Hannah and can just not get over it. It’s 1976, a brutally hot summer in Berlin. In an attempt to fully immerse himself in his feelings of loss and abandonment, he takes leave from his work as a bookseller and stays at home where he spends endless days exploring every facet of his grief and writes it down. The bookseller has turned writer. While writing and tormenting himself, he hopes Hannah will return eventually. Latest, when he gives her his writing.

This is a stunning short novel. It’s neither plot- nor character- but mostly language-driven. It might be the best piece of writing, style-wise, I’ve read in quite some time. The book is in many ways a rant. The rant of a man who has been left and doesn’t understand why. But also of  man who is very different from most people and very isolated. This may sound a bit like Goethe’s Leiden des jungen Werther but it’s not like that at all. Here, the tragedy always veers towards the satirical and the book is often funny. Especially during the rare moments when Richard interacts with someone else. Richard is an astute, sharp observer. He dissects people’s behaviour, their opinions, things he reads or watches on TV and his feelings of loss and grief. While not as lyrical as Swann in Proust’s work, he’s just as analytical.

The longer the story progresses, the more his feelings vanish and that is a new source of sorrow. Celebrating his despair filled the void that the loss of dialogue and companionship left.

Richard is a character-type that I’ve come across several times in literature. He is one of those, like Melville’s Bartleby, who refuse to take part. Naysayers who don’t want to participate in our society. In Richard’s case it’s the loss that catapults him out of his normal life and makes him look at the world around him and at himself with critical eyes. Only Hannah is perfect. In his memory that is.

Because this is so language-driven and because I’ve read it in German, it’s hard to convey how brilliant it is. I can only say, I don’t envy the translator. This must have been extremely difficult to translate.

I’m not sure why this book is called Devotion in English. The German title means “Dedication” and I don’t see why it wasn’t kept. There’s an instance, in which Richard writes about his devotion, but I don’t think it justifies the change of title.

I found a lot to admire in this book and the observations, expressions, figures of speech, are all brilliant, but it was not an entirely accessible book. Not because of the lack of plot or because it’s language-driven but because it very often changes from first to third person and it’s not always clear why and who is the narrator. I should have read it more closely to avoid this type of confusion. I mention this, so future readers know, this needs very attentive, close reading.

Here’s a photo of Botho Strauss and Cate Blanchett. She played Lotte in his play Big and Small.

Lion Feuchtwanger: The Oppermanns – Die Geschwister Oppermann (1933) Literature and War Readalong November 2017

When Lion Feuchtwanger left Germany in 1933 for a trip to the UK and the US, he didn’t think that he would never return to his home country. While abroad, he said to people that “Hitler is over”. When Hitler then became Chancellor – Reichskanzler – in 1933, Feuchtwanger’s opinion changed considerably. “Hitler means war” he said to a journalist, a statement that was widely quoted in the American press. Soon after the Reichstags fire – Reichstagsbrand – Feuchtwanger’s house was searched, his possessions destroyed or confiscated. He knew he could never go back. The events shocked him, but what shocked him even more was that he, like so many other Jews and other Germans, had believed for so long that anything this barbarous would never be possible in the country of Goethe and Schiller. The realization of how wrong he was led him to write The Oppermanns, a book in which we find a lot of his own experience. What struck me, while reading this, was how prescient it seemed. I rechecked my edition twice, to see whether it was really published in 1933. Yet, Feuchtwanger was very had on himself for not having seen the whole thing coming sooner. I found that so interesting. I think we are so focused on the war that we tend to forget that Hitler’s ascent, his totalitarian regime, the horrors against the Jews, the communists and the intellectuals started so much earlier. Long before the war.

The Oppermanns tells the story of a rich Jewish family. There are three brothers and a sister. Martin is the head of the family company, a furniture house, Gustav who works with his brother, is also a publicist and does research on Lessing. Edgar, is a brilliant surgeon. The sister, Klara, stays in the background. It’s her American husband, Jacques Lavendel, who is another major character. Three of the Oppermanns have children. Martin’s son Berthold, Edgars’ daughter Ruth, and Klara’s son Heinrich.

There are many minor characters that are just as important. Teachers at Berthold’s and Heinrich’s school, people who work for the Oppermann’s in their furniture store and many more.

The story starts in 1932 with Gustav’s 50th birthday. It should have been a day of triumph but their company is in danger and this overshadows Gustav’s big day. Until now, Gustav wasn’t a political man. He was more interested in Germany’s culture, its literature and, like many, he believed that someone who produced something as badly written as Mein Kampf couldn’t be taken seriously. Surely, the Germans would see through this and shake it off. His brothers Martin and Edgar were slightly more aware of what was going on. The Nazi’s were gaining ground and Jewish businesses and Jewish people were more and more threatened. In order to save the furniture business, Martin suggests to collaborate with an Aryan business partner. That someone this rooted in tradition and family values would go this way, wakes up Gustav.

Edgar on his side is threatened to leave his hospital. Although he has invented a famous cure, the Nazis’ pretend he’s killing his Aryan patients.

The saddest stories focus on Berthold, whose new teacher is a fanatic Nazi and determined to humiliate Berthold, and the story of one of the Oppermanns’ employees who, like so many, is arrested and tortured.

Towards the end of the novel, after Hitler has become Chancellor, those Oppermanns, who survived, flee the country.

An omniscient narrator tells us the many stories, switching back and forth between the characters. A bit like in Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française, we get the feeling of being there, of reading a documentary, but the result is a more traditional novel with a plot.

Feuchtwanger deplored later that he wrote this without taking a step back. He felt this documentary aspect was a weakness of the novel. I don’t agree with him. I think this is exactly the reason why this book is so outstanding. It’s the first novel in which the Nazis and their ascent is criticized, in which the manipulations, the lies, the atrocities, the confiscations, the torture, the concentration camps are described in detail.

What I found particularly fascinating is how Feuchtwanger explores the different reactions to the Nazi’s rise. Many, especially cultured people, just couldn’t believe that someone who wrote a book that was as badly written as Mein Kampf could become Chancellor. Others just didn’t take the movement seriously because they thought they wouldn’t get in the line of fire, either because they were from old, rich and influential families or because they thought they were not important enough. Others, especially religious Jews, were planning on leaving for Palestine. I often wondered why not more left but I had no clue that not everyone was allowed in. Only those who could pay a certain amount, which wasn’t possible for everyone.

Another interesting aspect is the difference between race and religion. Reading this book, one becomes fully ware, that it was never really about religion but about race. Most of the characters in this book, probably like Feuchtwanger himself, were not religious. And they certainly didn’t see themselves as belonging to another race. They felt they were Germans just like anyone else. Germans first and then Jewish. Not the other way around. In a way, you could say that this self-image clouded their perception. They didn’t identify with being Jewish and therefore didn’t feel threatened.

At the beginning of this post, I wrote how prescient this book felt. But that is the perception of someone who reads this now and the longer I think about it, the more I feel, Feuchtwanger wasn’t so much prescient as just aware. Reading this, I really wonder why not more people saw it coming.

The Oppermanns is a very readable, entertaining book. The characterisations are wonderful. Feuchtwanger brings even minor characters to life and makes the reader care for them. The strength of the book however lies in its immediacy and documentary character. Reading it, one feels transported in time. And, for the first time, I understood, not only how early it all began, but why people didn’t or couldn’t react the way they should have. Some embraced Nazism, but many just couldn’t believe it. Not even when they saw or heard about the atrocities. Only when they or their loved ones experienced them first-hand did it fully sink in.

If you’re interested in the rise of Nazism or like a well-told family story, then you shouldn’t miss this. It’s outstanding.

Other reviews

TJ (My Book Strings)

Winner Announcement – German Literature Giveaway – Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig

The following two of my readers have each won a copy of Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant.

TJ (My Bookstrings) and

Brian from Brian’s Babbling Books.

Congratulations, TJ and Brian. I’m looking forward to your thoughts on the book.

Please send me your addresses via beautyisasleepingcat at gmail dot com or via Twitter DM.

Two Lines Press, a program of the Center for the Art of Translation, is generously sponsoring this giveaway.

German Literature Giveaway – Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig

Today I have a special treat for fans of W.G Sebald, László Krasznahorkai, and the movies of Andrei Tarkovsky. Two Lines Press, a program of the Center for the Art of Translation, is generously sponsoring a giveaway of two copies of Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant.

Hilbig was born in East Germany but emigrated to West Germany in 1985. He received all of Germany’s major literary prizes.

I was familiar with his name but had never picked up any of his books. As soon as I was contacted by Two Lines Press, I browsed a few of his books and was stunned. The imagery reminded me so much of a Tarkovsky movie. And Tarkovsky is one of my favourite film directors. Abandoned houses, desolate landscapes, solitary people. I was captivated.

If you’d like to read a great review of the book here’s a post by roughghosts and his review in The Quarterly Conversation.

Here’s what you can find on the website of the Center for the Art of Translation:

“[Wolfgang Hilbig] evokes the luminous prose of W. G. Sebald.” — The New York Times

What falsehoods do we believe as children? And what happens when we realize they are lies—possibly heinous ones? In Old Rendering Plant Wolfgang Hilbig turns his febrile, hypnotic prose to the intersection of identity, language, and history’s darkest chapters, immersing readers in the odors and oozings of a butchery that has for years dumped biological waste into a river. It starts when a young boy becomes obsessed with an empty and decayed coal plant, coming to believe that it is tied to mysterious disappearances throughout the countryside. But as a young man, with the building now turned into an abattoir processing dead animals, he revisits this place and his memories of it, realizing just how much he has missed. Plumbing memory’s mysteries while evoking historic horrors, Hilbig gives us a gothic testament for the silenced and the speechless. With a tone worthy of Poe and a syntax descended from Joyce, this suggestive, menacing tale refracts the lost innocence of youth through the heavy burdens of maturity.

PRAISE

“Wolfgang Hilbig is an artist of immense stature.” — László Krasznahorkai, winner of the Man Booker International Prize and author of Satantango and Seiobo There Below

“Out of the ugliness of history and the wasted landscape of his home, he has created stories of disconsolate beauty.” — The Wall Street Journal

“Beneath Hilbig’s layers of imagistic prose, deep inside the tormented psyche of his narrator, a historical beast waits to be roused.” — Electric Literature“

“[Hilbig writes as] Edgar Allan Poe could have written if he had been born in Communist East Germany.” — Los Angeles Review of Books

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If you would like to win a copy of Hilbig’s novella, leave a comment, telling me why you’d like to read it.

The giveaway is US/Canada only. The winners will be announced on Wednesday November 22 2017, around 18:00 Central European time.

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The Giveaway is now Closed.

Welcome to German Literature Month

I can’t believe it’s already November. And I can equally not believe how unprepared I am this year. Usually I’ve already read a few books for German Literature Month before it even began. Or at least I’ve made a long list. Not so this time. I think I got a bit discouraged when I realized that most of the books I was drawn to haven’t been translated yet. To review or not to review a book that hasn’t been translated is always a dilemma. Not just during German Literature Month. In the last couple of months I decided mostly against it. I have a feeling, I won’t be able to do that this month. But we will see.

For now I only know that I will be discussing Lion Feuchtwanger’s The Opperman’s, which is part of the Literature and War Readalong. I’ll tell you more about it shortly.

And here is a tiny list.

The Nameless Day – Der namenlose Tag by Friedrich Ani

After years on the job, police detective Jakob Franck has retired. Finally, the dead with all their mysteries will no longer have any claim on him. Or so he thinks. On a cold autumn afternoon, a case he thought he’d long put behind him returns to his life and turns it upside down. The Nameless Day tells the story of that twenty-year-old case, which began with Franck carrying the news of the suicide of a seventeen-year-old girl to her mother, and holding her for seven hours as, in her grief, she said not a single word. Now her father has appeared, swearing to Franck that his daughter was murdered. Can Franck follow the cold trail of evidence two decades later to see whether he’s telling the truth? Could he live with himself if he didn’t? A psychological crime novel certain to thrill fans of Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo, The Nameless Day is a masterpiece, a tightly plotted story of contemporary alienation, loss, and violence.

Swallow Summer by Larissa Boehning

Two music producers pack up their studio along with their dreams of ever making it in the industry after too many bands fail to pay their bills…
A woman takes up an invitation to visit an ex-lover in Arizona, only to find his apartment is no bigger than a motel room…
A former drama student runs into an old classmate from ten years before, hardly recognising the timid creature he has become…
Each character in Larissa Boehning’s debut collection experiences a moment where they re forced to confront how differently things turned out, how quickly ambitions were shelved, or how easily people change. Former colleagues meet up to reminisce about the failed agency they used to work for; brothers-in-law find themselves co-habiting long after the one person they had in common passed away; fellow performers watch as their careers slowly drift in opposite directions. Boehning’s stories offer a rich store of metaphors for this abandonment: the downed tools of a deserted East German factory, lying exactly where they were dropped the day Communism fell; the old, collected cameras of a late father that seem to stare, wide-eyed, at the world he left behind. And yet, underpinning this abandonment, there is also great resilience. Like the cat spotted by a demolition worker in the penultimate story that sits, unflinching, as its home is bulldozed around it, certain spirits abide.

Der Autor als Souffleur by Undine Gruenter (not translated)

 

I hope you’ve got your books ready and are looking forward to joining us.

Don’t forget the two readalongs:

On 15th November, the date of the Warwick Prize award, Lizzy will be discussing Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of A Polar Bear.

On 29th November, I will discuss Lion Feuchtwanger’s The Oppermanns as part of her War and Literature series.

Announcing German Literature Month VII

Doesn’t time fly?  It seems like only two minutes ago since we were celebrating GLM VI.

Just like in previous years, I will co-host this event with Lizzy’s Literary Life. During the month of November, both our blogs will be dedicated to literature written in German.

Will you be dusting down some neglected tomes from your bookshelves? Reading more from a favourite author or treating yourself to some newly translated works?  There’s a lot to celebrate in German Literature this year: the Theodor Storm bi-centennial, the Heinrich Böll centennial, or the three German titles on the longlist of the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.

It’s hard to know where to start, and impossible to fit it all in. So Lizzy and I have decided to let you meander through the trails of German literature wherever and in whatever fashion you may wish (and perhaps, between us, we’ll cover it all.)

The whole month will be read as you please, with two readalongs for those who enjoy social reading.

On 15th November, the date of the Warwick Prize award, Lizzy will be discussing Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of A Polar Bear.

On 29th November, I will discuss Lion Feuchtwanger’s The Oppermanns as part of her War and Literature series.

There is no obligation to participate in the readalongs.  As ever,  the only rule for German Literature Month is to simply enjoy reading something originally written in German.  A novel, a play, a poem. Literary non-fiction, even.  Blog about it. Tweet about it. Review on goodreads or any other review site of your choice.  Just let the world know about the treasures to be found in German Literature (and let us know about it also on a special link that will be made available on November 1st).

In years past support for German Literature Month has been phenomenal, and the event is now a true highlight of our reading calendar.  Will GLM VII match its predecessors? It will if you join us. Will you?

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

in-my-brothers-shadowuwe-timm

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.