Pascal Quignard: Villa Amalia (2006)

I’ve heard so many good things about Pascal Quignard that I finally had to read him. I had two of his books on my piles, Tous les matins du mondeAll the World’s Monrnings and Villa Amalia, which will be published in English later this month. I finally decided to read Villa Amalia because I wasn’t in the mood for historical fiction.

At the beginning of the novel, the musician and composer Ann Hidden follows her boyfriend because she suspects he’s being unfaithful. She’s right and it hurts her terribly. While she does confront him, she’s not really interested in hearing what he has to say. Her mind is made up, she will leave her house, and everything else behind. She sells her house and all of her belongings, telling nobody but an old childhood friend who helps her to disappear. At first, she wants to tell her mother when she visits her in Brittany but their relationship is so tense, she only tells her she will travel.

Even though her childhood friend Georges knows what she’s doing, she also lies to him about her voyage. He thinks she’s in Africa, but she’s actually travelling first to Switzerland, where she stays in the Alps for a while, and then settles on the seaside in Southern Italy, on the island of Ischia. Here, she takes long baths and walks and begins to compose again. Ann has long abandoned giving concerts, she now dedicates her time solely to her own music and the transcription and reinterpretation of old masters, whose music she simplifies.

One day, on one of her walks, she sees a house high up on a hill and falls in love with the place. It’s a love and a longing so intense it seems strange that she feels this for a place and not a person. Villa Amalia has been abandoned for years and it’s not easy to track down the owners. She finds them eventually and is allowed to rent the house and renovate it. For the first time in her life, Ann Hidden is not only happy but has a sense of belonging somewhere. Later, she finds friends, a lover, and lives with a woman and a small child in great harmony until something terrible happens and she begins her wanderings again.

Villa Amalia is an astonishingly beautiful book. Ann Hidden is unlike any character I’ve come across in any book recently. If anything, she reminded me a bit of the one or the other character in Japanese fiction. She’s cold and distant but with a depth of feeling and a sense of beauty that makes her appealing. She carries wounds from her childhood that run very deep and explain why she’s cold and why she abandoned everything to try to find freedom.

The book beautifully explores several themes. The most obvious is how we deal with loss and abandonment. Another theme is life outside of what is considered conventional/normal. Ann finds nontraditional ways to interact and live with people. Every choice Ann makes is surprising because it’s a free choice. Most of us do or have to consider consequences, other people’s feelings, the future etc. Ann never does. She chooses the way that feels right to her at a given time. Another theme that is extremely important is creation. Or, more precisely, the creation of music. Where does music come from? Ann is a taciturn person who loves silence, yet she seems to have a well in her from which one melody after the other pours out.

I liked this book very much but it took me ages to finally review it because it’s so difficult to put into words why this is so beautiful or why I liked it so much. It’s a bit like with an elusive scent. It’s hard to describe it to someone else and explain why you like it.

I would have liked to share quotes but I’ve read this in French and the translation will only be out at the end of the month. I always find it a bit futile to do my own translations, when there is or will be an English version available.

Like All the World’s Mornings, Villa Amalia has been made into a movie starring Isabelle Huppert and one of my favourite actors Jean-Hughes Anglade. I hope to watch it soon.

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

*******

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.

*******

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.

Irène Némirovsky: Suite Française (2004) Literature and War Readalong October 2017

Suite Française, Irène Némirovsky’s posthumously published novel was written in 1942, rediscovered in 1998 and published in 2004. Originally it was planned as a sequence of five novels, but Némirovksy was deported and murdered in Auschwitz before she could complete it.

The two novels included in Suite FrançaiseTempête en juin and Dolce – can be read individually. There are a few characters that are mentioned in both but that does not affect the plot. Judging from the notes Némirovsky left, part three, would have reintroduced a number of the characters from the first books. We can assume, that all five books together would have worked a bit like Balzac’s Comédie Humaine.

Part one, Tempête en juin, which is much more episodic than part two, begins in Paris, in 1941 when the Germans arrive. Thousands of people flee in panic. The book follows several groups of people who all flee the town. Gabriel Corte, a famous writer, flees with his mistress. Some members of the Péricand family flee to Nîmes, where they have family. One of the sons is in the army, another one runs aways to join the army and a third, a priest, is guiding orphans out of the town. Charles Langelet, an aesthete and collector of art and porcelain, flees in a car. The Michaud’s, two bank employees, try to join the staff of the bank in Troyes. Their son Jean-Marie, who has been wounded, is recovering in Bussy.

The narrative moves back and forth between these people, yet the result is anything but disjointed because the tone is so similar and the descriptions so astute. At times it feels like a documentary. The reader is there all the time. We can see, hear and smell the chaos, the fear, the panic. But we also see people at their worst. Most of those Némirovsky chose to describe, with the exception of the Michauds, are rich people. Rich people with a lot of possessions that they don’t want to lose and cling to. People who think that even under dire circumstances, when there’s no food, no shelter, they should still be able to get what they want because they can pay for it. Most of these people are shown as materialistic, ruthless and selfish. They cling to their things in a way that’s absurd. The best example for this is the collector Langelet. He tricks a young couple and steals their petrol, just to save himself and his possessions. In the end, he has nowhere to go and returns to Paris. We see him unwrapping his collection, dine in expensive restaurants and return to his life as a socialite, until he has the most absurd accident.

Part one ends with the armistice and the Germans occupying large parts of France.

Part two begins right after the armistice and is set in the province, in Bussy. It shows how the French dealt with the German occupation and ends when Germany begins the invasion of Russia and the troops stationed in Bussy are sent to the Eastern Front.

Part two has two main story lines. One centers on Lucile Angellier whose husband is a prisoner of war. The Angelliers are one of the richest families of Bussy that’s why a Oberleutnant of the Wehrmacht is billeted at their house. Lucile and the Oberleutnant both seem unhappy in their respective marriages. After long shared walks and endless discussions about music and art, they fall in love but don’t engage in an affair.

The second story line follows a French farmer who was a prisoner of war and escaped. He’s one of those who has the hardest time accepting the new masters. While things look peaceful, under the surface it’s boiling. The French resent the Germans, resent that they eat their food, flirt with their women, live in their houses and make the rules. Who disobeys is shot.

Both parts are very good but I loved the first one more. The descriptions, the choice of details, the characterisations were so captivating that I could hardly put it down. I could also relate to it far more as my father’s family was among those who fled Paris when the Germans arrived. Nobody spoke about it. My dad had just been born, so he didn’t experience it and other members of the family didn’t talk about it. I know they fled to Brittany where my grandmother was from. Brittany was among the parts occupied by the Germans and they spoke about that. Just like in Dolce, they described the Germans as mostly very polite and even kind, but, like in Dolce, they found that even harder to take. Psychologically, an occupation is an extremely difficult experience. So many conflicting emotions play into it. Irène Némirovsky excels at describing this.

Obviously, this novel spoke to me because it shed light on some questions I had about my family’s history, but even without that, I would have loved this book for its minute details and because it focused on  aspects of the war that are often just briefly mentioned. I can’t think of any other novel that focuses on the invasion of Paris and the early occupation. Most other books either focus on the fighting or on the resistance. I also liked how critical she seems of human behaviour. All too often historical WWII novels or period movies choose to show how people grow under the circumstances, how they overcome their pettiness and selfishness, turn into heroes. The shared tragedy brings out the best in them. While I’m sure, this is true for some, for many it isn’t. Since Némirovsky experienced what she described, I’m pretty sure, her description is more realistic than the idealized versions we usually see. In her book, the Michauds are the only people who seem to grow morally under the circumstances.

One could write endlessly about this book. I only scratched the surface. Suite Française is more than just an outstanding novel, it’s an invaluable document. What a terrible shame it wasn’t finished. That said, it doesn’t feel unfinished.

Other Review

TJ (My Book Strings)

 

*******

Suite Française is the sixth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next book is the German pre-war novel The Oppermanns  – Die Geschwister Oppermann by Lion Feuchtwanger. Discussion starts on Wednesday, November 29, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.

Literature and War Readalong October 2017: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

 

Irène Némirovsky’s posthumously published book Suite Française has been on my pile for ages. I bought the French edition when it came out in 2004. The book consists of two fifths of a novel that was planned to have five parts. Irène Némirovsky wasn’t able to finish her work.  The author, who was of Ukrainian Jewish origin, was deported by the Nazis and killed in 1942.

Usually I start my readalong books later in the month but given that this one is over 500 pages long, I started early. That’s why I can do something, I usually can’t do— urge you to pick this up. I haven’t finished yet but I can already tell – this is fantastic and will make my end of year list.

Most WWII novels we’ve read for the readalong were written either with hindsight or as contemporary historical novels. Not this one. It was written while things happened, which gives it a poignancy, many other books lack. In that it reminds me of Duras’ La douleur.

Here are the first sentences:

Hot, thought the Parisians. The warm air of spring. It was night, they were at war and there was an air raid. But dawn was near and the war far away. The first to hear the hum of the siren were those who couldn’t sleep—the ill and bedridden, mothers with sons at the front, women crying for the men they loved. To them it began as a long breath, like air being forced into a deep sigh. It wasn’t long before its wailing filled the sky. It came from afar, from beyond the horizon, slowly, almost lazily. Those still asleep dreamt of waves breaking over pebbles, a March storm whipping the woods, a herd of cows trampling the ground with their hooves, until finally sleep was shaken off and they struggled to open their eyes, murmuring. “Is it an air raid?”

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

Suite Française by Irène Nemirovsky, 432 pages, France 1942, WWII

Set during the year that France fell to the Nazis, Suite Française falls into two parts. The first is a brilliant depiction of a group of Parisians as they flee the Nazi invasion; the second follows the inhabitants of a small rural community under occupation. Suite Française is a novel that teems with wonderful characters struggling with the new regime. However, amidst the mess of defeat, and all the hypocrisy and compromise, there is hope. True nobility and love exist, but often in surprising places.

Irène Némirovsky began writing Suite Française in 1940, but her death in Auschwitz prevented her from seeing the day, sixty-five years later, that the novel would be discovered by her daughter and hailed worldwide as a masterpiece.

*******

The discussion starts on Tuesday, 31 October 2017.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.