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

The Radetzky March Readalong – Part 3

 

SPOILER WARNING – The answers and questions give away important plot points

There seems to be only one true and honest relationship in this novel—the friendship between district administrator  von Trotta and doctor Skowronnek. Would you agree? What did you think of their relationship?

Until the moment when von Trotta and Skowronnek meet, the coldness of most of the relationships is quite disturbing. The way von Trotta treated his son is one of the examples that struck me. There was no warmth, no real interest, no understanding or empathy. That changes when von Trotta meets Skowronnek. It’s an almost magical encounter and I wasn’t surprised to see Roth compare it to love at first sight in calling it friendship at first sight. For the first time in his life, von Trotta changes and opens up and, also for the first time, begins to show some feelings towards his son. Skowronnek is a true catalyst.

Do you think the novel would have taken another turn, had Carl Joseph opened his father’s letter?

I’d like to think so but it’s not impossible that it wouldn’t because Carl Joseph, at that particular time, was beyond the point of no-return. Things had to get worse before they could get better, as is often the case with alcoholics or gamblers.

What is the significance of the regimental party at Chojnicki’s country house?

It was my favourite chapter by far. It contains everything that’s great about this book – the irony, the absurdity, the evocative descriptions of the weather, that underlines the looming catastrophe. The party shows what the life for the upper classes was all about at the time. And knowing this will be the last time that they will celebrate in this way, is eerie. The last moment of glory of a dying world.

Chapter 21 takes us to the Eastern front.  What do you think about the way Roth depicts the conflict? How do you feel about the manner of Carl Joseph’s death?

In many ways, what Carl Joseph did was more heroic than what his grandfather did. His grandfather didn’t even get the time to think about what he was doing, while Carl Joseph was fully conscious of the risk. Of course, he was also tired of living and the consequences may not have been important for him. And, yes, he didn’t save a life but he was willing to help others.

What struck me the most in this chapter, is that we get a feeling for how vast the empire was. How many people were part of it.

I did add this map before, but I think it’s well worth adding it again here.

Did you find the ending satisfying?

Absolutely. I didn’t expect it to end with Skowronnek and found that very hopeful. He’s the only truly likable character because he has warmth and empathy and doesn’t care about conventions. He’s also capable of true friendship. To end with him, showing us how he moves on, is both hopeful and sad. I’d like to think of him as a man of a new era. A bit like Chojnicki but without being jaded or spoilt through incredible wealth. His relationship to money is very telling too. He doesn’t give because he has too much like Chojnicki but because he wants to help a friend.

The Radetzky March has been described as a nostalgic novel for a lost empire.  Is nostalgic the adjective you’d use?

I didn’t find it nostalgic. The only slightly nostalgic chapter was the party at Chojnicki’s but it’s too full of irony to be truly nostalgic. Possibly the only nostalgic element was the epilogue, in which we see Skowronnek playing chess on his own.

What struck you the most in this novel, what do you like or dislike the most?

I’ve read it before, ages ago, and the one thing I didn’t remember and that struck the most now, was how male-dominated it was. And the way women are portrayed. They are all either dead/dying or unfaithful, sometimes both. If he’d wanted to include more female characters, I think, he would have had to write a much longer novel. All the other novels about the end of an era that come to mind, are larger canvases that include more female characters.

Would you reread The Radetzky March?

Given the state of my piles, I don’t think so but it’s not entirely impossible. It’s such a complex book that would deserve to be reread.

******

I’d like to thank everyone who participated. Lizzy and I truly appreciate it. Thank you all for your enthusiasm and your insighful comments and posts. I’ll try to visit those I’ve missed.

The Radetzky March Readalong – Part 2

 

SPOILER WARNING – The answers and questions give away important plot points

Are there characters you like or dislike particularly so far?

While I find all of the characters very interesting and wonderfully drawn, there isn’t any character I particularly like. I feel sorry for many of them, but I don’t think they are particularly likable, possibly with the exception of Chojnicki. I loved the way he spoke about the Kaiser, calling him by hist first name. Was it out of lack of respect? Possibly, but also, I think because he felt that the end of the monarchy was approaching and, rightly so.

What does the old servant Jacques and his death stand for?

There are so many scenes in this book that signify or announce the end of an era but Jacques also announces the end of the von Trottas. He’s the only one who knew the hero of Solferino and with him, this man who has almost been forgotten, through his own doing, is sinking even further into oblivion. The whole death scene was particularly well done and used to great effect. Like the monarchy, he doesn’t die quickly but seems to go back to new life and then dies anyway. A book that’s so heavily preoccupied with death and dying had to have an extended death scene.

In many ways Chojnicki is the opposite of Jacques. What did you think of him?

I mentioned him earlier as one of the few characters I really liked. A modern man, very rich but not in a greedy kind of way. He’s always willing to share and give his money to those who need it. He seems to mind his own business more than anything else. He is alert and curious, also generous and free of self-importance, a typical trait of many of the other characters.

What do you make of this quote?

“I haven’t forgotten him,” said the lieutenant, “I always thought of that painting. I’m not strong enough for this painting. The dead! I can’t forget the dead! Father, I can’t forget anything. Father!”

I felt sorry for Carl Joseph from the beginning of the book, when his first lover, Frau Slama dies. Death got a hold of him and never let go. Although he thinks he’s found new life, with Frau von Taussig, the reader can sense it will be short-lived.

What do you think of Roth’s style so far?

I think I remembered his style differently. As Andrew said in his post on the first part, it feels much more like a 19th century novel. No modernist approaches. Maybe others feel differently, but I don’t think he’s a great stylist. His strengths are characterisation and descriptions. He’s more interested in psychology than beautiful language or original ways to say things.

Were you surprised to find the last chapter of part 2 told from the point of view of Kaiser Franz Josef? How effective did you find it?

I thought it was a great idea and worked very well. It showed the Kaiser as a human being, something people at the time possibly tended to forget. In people’s views he was almost God-like. The chapter shows how isolating this must have been. Most of the time, he had to play a role. Only when he was alone, at night, could he express his true self.

Do you have favorite quotes? Please share them and tell us why you like them.

I have so many favourite quotes but because I read the book in German, I won’t share them. I’m still not feeling well enough to embark on any translations.

When he meets Frau von Taussig, Carl Josef feels like he’s happy for the first time? Do you think that’s true? How do you think of her and their relationship?

Frau von Taussig is a great character. Silly and touching at the same time. But also selfish and self-involved. The way Roth introduced her, with only a remark at first, at the end of one chapter, told the reader she’s trouble. I don’t think she cares about Carl Joseph. One gets the feeling it could have been any young lieutenant. There’s no attempt to understand or get to know him. And so, in the end, she treats Carl Joseph like every one else does. Just a player in play that has lost its meaning. A bit like the Kaiser. Carl Joseph is as lonely and desperate as before, and possibly, without his knowing, worse off than before he met her.

How do you feel about the descriptions of alcoholism in this section?

It’s a chilling description of alcoholism and feels very realistic. Sadly, Roth knew what he was writing about and the reader can sense that.

The Radetzky March Readalong – Part 1

 

SPOILER WARNING – The answers and questions give away important plot points

 

Welcome to the #germanlitmonth spring readalong of Joseph Roth’s more famous novel, The Radetzky March.  What enticed you to readalong with us?

I’ve read the book ages ago, in school, however, because we started it towards the end of a semester, we never finished it and because we were moving on to other books, I also never finished it for myself. Although more than one book has been spoilt because I read it in the class room, this one wasn’t. I really loved it, just never found the time to get back to it. The longer I waited, the clearer it became, that I couldn’t just read the final chapters but had to start from the beginning.

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading?

I’m reading it in the German original. A paperback edition. Unfortunately it is one of those without any introduction or notes. This is decidedly one of those books where notes would have come in handy.

Is the novel living up to your expectations?

It’s in many ways much better than I remembered it. I don’t think I caught how intertwined the themes of death, dying, and the end of an era were. I also didn’t remember how much it focussed on one person and how male-dominated it was.

How would you comment on the first few sentences? Is this an effective opening? “The Trottas were not an old family.  Their founder had been ennobled following the battle of Solferino.  He was a Slovene. The name of his village – Sipolje – was taken into his title.  Fate had singled him out for a particular deed. He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.” (Translation: Michael Hofmann)

I found this very typical for its time, but a bit clunky for a contemporary reader. It’s vital information, of course. It also works as foreshadowing of many of the themes, especially the last sentence. It’s just not the kind of beginning that invites you with open arms, so to speak.

Roth subscribed to Chekhov’s view that a writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness”.  That doesn’t mean that we as readers need to be the same! How do you feel about the hero of Solferino’s crusade to return to obscurity? What are the ramifications of this for his descendants?

I got where he was coming from. I didn’t think he ever saw himself as particularly heroic and the way what he did was described in the school book made him seem even more heroic. On the other hand, his behaviour is typical of the older Trotta’s. They are such a strict, pedantic, joyless lot. And it seemed like he didn’t feel he was deserving of his title.

Carl Josef von Trotta follows his grandfather into the military.  Is his life there honourable and meaningful? Is his fateful relationship with Dr Demant’s wife innocent?

I was wondering while reading these chapters and came to the conclusion that the relationship possibly was innocent. Roth mentions physical contact when it happens but he doesn’t mention it here. I could be wrong, of course, but it would make Demant’s death even more tragic.

Roth may not judge his characters, but his sights are aimed at other targets: the social order and the military code of honour, for instance.  How does Roth critique these?

I think the duel and subsequent death of two officers shows very well how Roth felt about the code of honour. The whole story is absurd and so is the outcome. It doesn’t even matter, whether or not Trotta and Demant’s wife were having an affair. One has also the feeling Demant doesn’t even do it because of his pride, but because he thinks he has to. I’ve come across other duels in novels and they are always used as a means to show how cruel the code of honour was. But I don’t think I’ve ever come across one with quite that outcome. The double death makes it even more cruel and absurd.

Do you have any further comments on this section?

What struck me the most in this section was Carl Joseph’s reaction to Mme Slama’s death. It’s almost as if it hit his core and he wasn’t the same from then on. He immediately associated her death with the decay of her body. I suspect, although I have no proof whatsoever, that this is rather how Roth felt about death. The images of worms eating decaying bodies is recurring. Obviously, it also echoes the death of the monarchy. As a reaction of such a young man, it seemed extreme, but her death could also have triggered an underlying depression, which became aparent in these morbid thoughts.

 

Get Ready for the Radetzky March Readalong Starting April 4th

Readalong Schedule

Part One on Thursday  April 4

Part Two on Thursday April 11

Part 3 on Thursday April 18

*****

The readalong begins in 10 days time on April 4th with a discussion of Part One of Joseph Roth’s masterpiece. There will be  reading questions for those who wish some guidance, but we need email addresses so that we can send them to you (about a week before each discussion).

If you’d like to receive the questions, please comment ensuring you fill in the email field in the comment form. (No-one else will see it that way.) Alternatively, follow @lizzysiddal or @beautyandthecat on twitter and let us know you want to read with us. We can then DM the questions to you.

There is no obligation to answer all or any of our questions. As always with #germanlitmonth reads, you can read/write/blog/tweet as you please. But we had a fantastic experience, when we did it this way with Effi Briest. And there’s just as much to discuss about The Radetzky March.

Lizzy and I are looking forward to this immensely.

*****

Readalong Schedule

Part One on Thursday  April 4

Part Two on Thursday April 11

Part 3 on Thursday April 18

A Long Blue Monday by Erhard von Büren – Swiss Week Readalong

Published in 2013, A Long Blue Monday, is Erhard von Büren’s third novel. His earlier novels Wasp Days and Epitaph for a Working Man were published in 1989 and 2000 respectively. He lives in Solothurn, Switzerland.

A Long Blue Monday tells the story of Paul Ganter, a retired school teacher who has temporarily left his wife and taken an apartment in the city to write a book about Sherwood Anderson. Very possibly he could have done that at home, but we soon learn that this time out is about much more than just writing a book. He uses the time alone to delve into his feelings and memories and relives vividly an unhappy love story that happened over forty years ago, in the summer of 1959. That year he fell in love with Claudia, a girl from a very rich family and, in a desperate attempt to impress her, takes weeks off from school to write a trilogy of plays in the vein of the great American playwrights of the time. Every day he slaves over his work that seems to be a series of soliloquies put on paper. Once it is finished, he gives the play to his crush, hoping it will impress her. Sadly, just like all his other attempts at wooing her, this barely gets a reaction. Clearly, she’s not into him. Looking back, Ganter can’t help but admire the stamina of his younger self. And he realizes that while the result of his writing wasn’t successful, locking himself away, writing daily, going for long walks and experience the changes in the weather and nature surrounding him, was one of the most intense experiences of his life.

The story is told going back and forth in time. In the present, Paul spends a lot of time writing and reminiscing, but he also has long conversations with his daughter who discovers sides of her father she never knew existed. While the love story is central, it isn’t the most important aspect of Paul’s delving into his past. He also remembers vividly what it was like to come from a poor family, in which the men were battling alcoholism. He remembers how difficult it was to know what he wanted to do with his life and to achieve it. Trying to overcome the shortcomings of his upbringing, he became a master student. Unfortunately, for the longest time, he thought that he could master life and love just like he mastered school. This set him up to failure. Being shy didn’t help him either. Love and life choices are explored, but there’s one other important thing—the narrator’s intense love of American culture that finally leads him to become an English teacher and is now one of the reasons for his time out.

I hope my review will have told you several things—this is a very complex, rich book, but it’s neither straightforward, nor plot-driven. Funnily, for a novel that talks so much about American culture, it’s very unlike most American literature I know. It’s introspective and very quiet. Far more analysis of thoughts and feelings, than scenes and action. One could say, more telling than showing. The story meanders, goes back and forth in time, returns to certain events, adds additional information. Just like it happens to all of us in real life. We rarely remember events in a straightforward way.

I liked A Long Blue Monday very much. It’s a quiet book about a quiet, shy man, who feels strongly, struggles and fails, struggles some more, and then succeeds and finds meaning in all sorts of things. My favourite parts were the nature descriptions and if I had read this in English, you’d find dozens of quotes. The descriptions are lyrical and beautifully crafted. They are the most eloquent sign of the narrator’s rich interior life.

While reading A Long Blue Monday, I couldn’t help but think of another Swiss author, who writes similar descriptions— Robert Walser. If you know me, you know this is high praise.

I hope some of you have read this as well. I’m looking forward to the discussion.

Some thoughts on Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb – Die Kapuzinergruft

Published in 1938, Die KapuzinergruftThe Emperor’s Tomb, was one of Joseph Roth’s last novels and the last that was published during his lifetime. Roth died in 1939, in exile, of the complications of a double pneumonia, that was possibly aggravated due to the sudden withdrawal of alcohol.

The Emperor’s Tomb tells the story of Franz Ferdinand Trotta and begins shortly before the first world war and ends with Austria’s Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany. In many ways the book can be seen as a sequel to The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth’s most famous novel. Usually I would write a brief summary but since this review is part of a readalong and since Emma has already posted an excellent summary of the book, I’ll skip this part and add a link to her post instead – here.

For this post, I’d like to focus on some topics I found of interest.

WWI

As many of the readers of this blog know/may remember, for many years, I hosted a Literature and War readalong. Roth had been a chosen author in the past, even though he doesn’t portray the war as such, as rather the mental state of war, or people during war time. I ususally like this approach but in this novel, it was puzzling for several reasons. As I said before, the book begins before WWI, in 1913, and ends in 1938. While Roth describes the time before and after the war years in great detail, things get blurry from 1914 to 1918, although, allegedly, Trotta spends his years in a Russian POW camp in Siberia. If you’d never read anything about any prisoner of war camps, reading this novel would make you think it was a bit of harsher version of a boy scout camp. There aren’t any details described. No fighting happens. This is puzzling, if not bizarre. My knowledge of war literature made me assume one thing – Roth spent his WWI years sheltered. Although I own a huge Roth biography, I haven’t read it yet, but I picked it up and overflew some passages that confirmed what I suspected. He was enlisted but since he was initially considered unfit for military service, he never saw any action, but spent the war years behind a desk. Apparently, to explain why he hadn’t seen any action during the war, he pretended that he had been in Russian captivity, which isn’t true. I think this shows clearly that he must have felt guilty. While I’m not familiar with his earlier years, I know a bit about his final years, and guilt has been a defining emotion for Roth. Once it’s clear that this is why the book is so unspecific when it comes to the actual war, one can move on and concentrate on other elements. As a portrayal of the end of an era and the end of a class system, this is absolutely brilliant and nuanced. And while Trotta’s war experience lacks realism, the way he feels when he comes home doesn’t, because the strong feeling of alienation and of being a stranger in one’s own country was something many Austrians felt at that time.

Women

Before going to war, Trotta marries a girl, Elisabeth, he’d been in love with for ages. Due to a sad story, involving a servant, the marriage isn’t consummated and his new wife flees, angry. When he returns from the war, she’s not exactly keen on seeing him. Like so many women back then, she’s learned to live a life according to her own choices. She certainly doesn’t want to abandon her freedom. And she is living with another woman with whom she clearly is in a physical relationship. Trotta isn’t happy about this but he’s not prejudiced. If it had been a man, it would have been the same to him. Only he might have felt more threatened as the only reason why his wife, in the end returns to him, is because she wants a child. Once the child is born, however, it doesn’t hold her back and she leaves it with his father. I found this surprisingly modern. I’m sure Roth was freethinking when it came to relationships, but I also think that Elisabeth is a character that was quite common at the time. It’s sad to think that so much of that freedom was lost again later.

Austrian pre-war diversity

I don’t think I’ve ever read an author that made me realize just how diverse the Austro-Hungarian Empire was. It was a multinational state, with people speaking different languages, following different religions. In this book Trotta, who is descendant of the non-aristocratic line of the “von Trottas”, feels a stronger connection with the peasant side of his family. While he’s called “Herr Baron”, he doesn’t identify with the aristocracy. When a cousin from Sipolje comes to claim a part of his inheritance, he also introduces Trotta to a friend. That friend invites Trotta to spend time with him in Galicia. Then the war breaks out. Trotta suddenly feel estranged from his former aristocratic friends and asks to be transferred to the regiment in which his cousin and the friend serve. Back in Vienna, after the war, Trotta mourns not only the past but the missed opportunity. He believes that Austria-Hungary could have been a really great state, especially due to its diversity, but instead, it only chose the German part.

Final thoughts

This is a flawed book. The structure is uneven and the war section is so far from realistic, it’s almost painful. Nonetheless, I loved this book. I love Roth’s writing, the mournful tone, his description, his humanity. And there’s also some gentle humour. Roth is outstanding at showing people’s quirks. The portrait of the mother in this book, is an excellent example. At first, she’s very rooted in her old ways, but once change has come, she embraces it and enjoys it because it means there’s new life, where there was only stuffiness before. Sadly, it’s all an illusion, but she’ll never really find out.

I’m glad, Lizzy chose this novel for her readalong. You can find her thoughts here.

This was my fifth Joseph Roth novel and so far, I’ve liked them all. If you’re interested, here are my reviews of Weights and MeasuresHotel Savoy and of Flight Without End.I’ve read The Radetzky March pre-blogging.