Ingrid Noll: The Pharmacist aka Die Apothekerin (1994) La Grande Dame of German Crime

As much as I like to savour a book, it’s wonderful, once in a while when you start something and the next time you look up the 300 pages have already been read. That’s pretty much what happened with The Pharmacist aka Die Apothekerin by Ingrid Noll. The book is currently only available in English as cheap used paperback or library copy. It has been made into a movie starring Katja Riemann and Jürgen Vogel.

Noll is something like the grande dame of German crime that’s why it’s fitting to kick off the crime week of our German Literature Month with a review of one her books. Not only does she write well, she is famous for her macabre ideas, black humour and psychologically complex characters. These are not whodunnits but explorations of the criminal mind with a twist. A little bit of Patricia Highsmith with a whole lot of very distinctly Ingrid Noll.

The story starts bizarre enough with the narrator Hella Moormann lying in a hospital bed and starting to tell her whole life to a complete stranger, her bed neighbour, the elderly and seemingly inoffensive Rosemarie Hirte. Why Hella is in hospital is not told and it strikes us as uncanny that she would start to tell the most incredible details to someone she doesn’t know.

Hella has two striking features. People constantly die around her and she always falls for the wrong man. Occasionally this is connected, sometimes it isn’t. She is a pharmacist and very well versed in potions and poisons. It seems that her latest lover was far more interested in this feature than in any other of her charms if there are any. Hella is a very unreliable narrator and distorts most things, we can only assume that she is far less attractive than she thinks.

Levin, the young man she moves in with, is studying to become a dentist. His uncle is an extremely rich man and Levin is his only heir. He has a cunning plan involving false teeth and poison but he needs Hella’s assistance.

Until the end of the book, we never really know whether Hell is as naive as she pretends. And while the story progresses we are more and more intrigued by Rosemarie who starts to get a bit too interested in Hella’s story.

The only thing we know for sure is that people keep on dying. I really enjoyed following Hella’s tale, guided by Ingrid Noll’s acerbic wit and fascinated by the incredible pairing of  striking descriptions with gross exaggerations. On top of all that this is a tale about fast cars, a big beautiful house, criminal people, accidents, pregnancies and a narrator who may or may not be innocent.

This isn’t the first Ingrid Noll novel I’ve read. There was none that I didn’t like. In Germany she is compared to Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Millar and Joan Aiken. In any case, Noll is for those who like their crime to be on the more literary side of the genre.

Do you know Ingrid Noll? Do you have favourite German crime writers?

The review is part of German Literature Month Week II – Crime

Literature and War Readalong November 2011 Meets German Literature Month: The Silent Angel by Heinrich Böll

I’m not sure all those who follow me for the Literature and War Readalong did notice that there was a change of title. It just didn’t feel right to read an American author depicting the Civil War during German Literature Month. This means The Killer Angels are postponed (?).

The choice for this month’s readalong is Heinrich Böll’s The Silent Angel aka Der Engel schwieg. This novel, by my favourite German writer, is a unique book. I will explore this in more detail in Thursday’s post on Sebald’s Luftkrieg und Literatur aka On the Natural History of Destruction.

Here’s the blurb for Silent Angel

The first novel by the Nobel prize winner, never previously published. Written at the end of the Second World War it describes the death and destruction faced by the people of a city ravaged by war.

The readalong is not taking place on Friday but on Saturday 26 November. Anyone who wants to participate just leave a link in the comments section of my post, I will then add it to my post. Those who have no blogs are welcome to leave longer comments or send me an e-mail with their thoughts before Saturday and I will add them to my post. Should anyone prefer questions instead of freestyle, let me know. I could send out questions but give me time until Wednesday 23 November.

Watch out for Wednesday’s giveaway…

Peter Handke: Wunschloses Unglück aka A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (1972)

Peter Handke’s mother was an invisible woman. Throughout her life—which spanned the Nazi era, the war, and the postwar consumer economy—she struggled to maintain appearances, only to arrive at a terrible recognition: “I’m not human any more.” Not long after, she killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills.

Peter Handke’s Wunschloses Unglück or A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is the bleak account of a German woman’s life. It is the story of Handke’s mother, her struggle, her despair, her suicide.

The author starts with his own motivation to write this book, the attempt to make sense to put into words what is hardly comprehensible and to escape a feeling of being utterly numb. What did surprise me at first is his choice to call the account novella. Not memoir. After a few pages I realized that he wanted to make this an exemplary account. His mother’s life stands for numerous invisible women’s lives. When I finally got that, I felt like standing in a corner of a room and just scream. It’s such an outrageous account. It’s outrageous and infuriating and sad because it’s such a common story. Numerous women born in small towns (or even cities) between the wars lead lives like this. No one took them seriously, no one thought they should have a proper education. They were oppressed, and crushed, ridiculed and held small. All they were offered was the proverbial Kinder, Küche, Kirche (Children. Kitchen, Church).

Handke has by now become one of the most controversial German authors, but at the time of the publication of Wunschloses Unglück he was still the German literary Wunderkind, so too speak.

Handke’s mother is born in Kärnten, a region in Austria, in the early 1920s. She belongs to the Slovenian speaking minority. Despite a joyless childhood and hardly any education – she is only a girl – , her curiosity and interest in many things make her leave home and enjoy life for a while. She is only a young woman, almost a girl still, when she gets pregnant from a married man. He is the love of her life and she will never love anyone else after this. Afraid of the shame and what would become of her and the child she gets married as fast as she can to someone else. They live in Berlin and stay there until after the war when poverty and the difficult situation in the bombed city drive them back to the village in Austria from which she came.

What follows is indeed exemplary and that is why it’s so sad. Her husband starts drinking and hits her. She gets pregnant at least another five or six times, three of the children she aborts herself. The society in which she lives consists of uncultured peasants. She looses all interest in life and starts to develop all sorts of ailments. In the end she has a chronic headache that is so severe that she can hardly think, barely see and speak. She goes to a doctor who diagnoses a nervous breakdown, gives her pills. She does get a little bit better. She starts to visit girlfriends, reads extensively. She reads the books Handke gives her and with the help of those books, she speaks about herself for the first time.  She tries to have some fun but her marriage is so love- and joyless, she can hardly stand it. Her husband has tuberculosis and is gone often, when he is back, they sit and stare silently at opposite walls. She says she wants to die by she is afraid of death. She starts speaking about how to kill herself and finally writes long letters of goodbye to everybody. She buys a red umbrella, goes to the hairdresser, has her nails done, lies on her bed and swallows all the tablets she has.

When Handke hears of her suicide his first reaction is one of pride. He is proud of her. After a while he starts to feel horrible. He starts to write about her but that doesn’t help. He wakes regularly in terror and dread.

Handke could have chosen numerous ways to tell this story, more personal ones. Throughout the narration he hardly ever uses perosnal pronouns like “I” or “she” but always “one did this, one did that”. The alienation is as complete as possible.

Handke is famous for his style, unwieldy at times but sparkling here and there with metaphors and sentences that you don’t find often. If you want to get to know him, it isn’t a bad thing to start with a short text like this one.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams has been published by Pushkin Press and by the The New York Review Book Classics. It’s extremely depressing but a very important text. It describes in details the life of many a woman in Catholic petite bourgeoisie in dreary post- war Germany and Austria. It speaks of the misogyny and sexism that pervaded the society. The poverty, the struggles, the joylessness. Manic saving, mistrust of anything that looked like frivolity and be it only reading a book. It’s an oppressing account but worth reading.

Handke didn’t only write depressing books. He has, amongst a lot of other books, written the script of one of the most beuatiful movies, Wim Wender’s Himmel über Berlin aka Wings of Desire.

Daniel Glattauer: Every Seventh Wave (2011) aka Alle sieben Wellen (2009) The Sequel of Love Virtually

Every Seventh Wave

A while back I wrote about Daniel Glattauer’s Love Virtually which has been released meanwhile. I just saw that the sequel, Every Seventh Wave,  will be published this year as well. Usually I include the amazon blurb at the beginning of my posts but this one  contains too many spoilers of the first book.

Like its predecessor, I have read Alle sieben Wellen when it came out in Germany. For all those who like Love Virtually, they can look forward to a sequel that is very close to the first book. The story of Leo and Emmi, their e-mail exchange goes on. More passionate and more intense than before. And still they ask the same questions. Should they meet or should they not? To the somewhat playful tone of the first book Glattauer adds a bit of a darker undertone. I cannot say too much or it would be a spoiler.

Even though I didn’t like the idea of a sequel at all and if I had had something to say, it wouldn’t have been written but since it was and I liked the tone of the first book, I had to read this one as well. And it isn’t disappointing. It is as witty, charming, thought-provoking and enjoyable as the first.

All those who thought that Emmi and Leo’s story shouldn’t finish like it did in Love Virtually will enjoy this book. All those who loved the style of Glattauer the first time, will enjoy this as well. Although Love Virtually can be read on its own, this one can not. If you want to read Glattauer, you should start with the first one.

I have no problem with the translation of the title this time, it is pretty literal but I still like the German cover better.

The Austrian author Daniel Glattauer has written quite a few books that have been successful in Germany and other German speaking countries. Like so very often none of them has been translated. Should you read German you can find more information on his website.

Daniel Glattauer: Love Virtually (2011) aka Gut gegen Nordwind (2006) A German Novel in E-Mails

Love Virtually

“Write to me, Emmi. Writing is like kissing, but without lips. Writing is kissing with the mind.’

It begins by chance: Leo receives emails in error from an unknown woman called Emmi. Being polite he replies, and Emmi writes back. A few brief exchanges are all it takes to spark a mutual interest in each other, and soon Emmi and Leo are sharing their innermost secrets and longings. The erotic tension simmers, and it seems only a matter of time before they will meet in person. But they keep putting off the moment – the prospect both excites and unsettles them. And after all, Emmi is happily married. Will their feelings for each other survive the test of a real-life encounter?

And if so, what then?

Love Virtually is a funny, fast-paced and utterly absorbing novel, with plenty of twists and turns, about a love affair conducted entirely by email.

I have already read Love Virtually because the original came out in Germany in 2006. I even read it in hardback, a rare thing, as I was so curious to find out what the hype was all about. I must say, I have not often been this engrossed. You start it, you read and you do not stop before the end. After, let’s say, two –  three pages you will have forgotten that this is a novel, you will be sure that you are reading a real e-mail exchange between two people. That is quite an achievement. I am really  pleased to see that Glattauer’s book will be published in English in 2011.

Emmi writes accidentally to Leo and they keep on writing to each other because each one likes the tone of the other’s e-mails. And because they both imagine each other. Without knowing each other they develop crushes. There is only one little complication. Emmi is happily married. It seems only natural she does not want to meet Leo. What if he was anything like the man she imagines? Still she can’t stop writing. They tease and flirt and exchange their hidden dreams and wishes and get to know each other better and better. They also arrange a date without really meeting each other. They just both know that they are at the same restaurant at the same time. Later they compare their impressions and try to find out if they  did recognize each other.

Leo and Emmi are both  intellectuals. This is important to know, as that determines the nature of their exchange. Even though they tease and flirt, they philosophize and analyze a great deal too.

If you want to find out if they really meet you have to read the novel. Daniel Glattauer wrote a sequel (Alle sieben Wellen 2009) that has been published a while back. It is also very good but I would have preferred if he had stopped after Gut gegen Nordwind. The ending of Love Virtually is very special. The sequel spoils it.

I think the idea of having a crush on someone you only know by e-mail (I know the movie with Meg Ryan, but Love Virtually is very different) is interesting and Glattauer provides an in-depth analysis of this premiss. Love Virtually is highly entertaining but still deep. Personally I like epistolary novels a great deal. This is just a variation on the same theme.

A word on the English marketing of this book. Just have a look at the German cover. Don’t you think it looks much nicer? I can understand that the title was problematic. Gut gegen Nordwind would have to be translated as “Good against the North wind”. This is far more poetical than Love Virtually but does this mean anything outside of Germany? The North wind is a bit like the Californian Santa Ana winds, but cold, very cold. He does also carry a nervous energy and is a bit depressing. I must admit, I am not sure I would have bought the book with the title Love Virtually and such a cover. What do you think about the covers and the titles?