Announcing German Literature Month X

10 years, who would have thought it?  But here we are, and in a year when there has been plenty to be glum about, Lizzy and I thought we should buck the trend, and celebrate ten years with a bang! Hence the badge.

Thanks to all who have travelled with us thus far.  We hope you’ll accompany us again. For those who may be new to this, German Literature Month is the month for reading all things originally written in German – in whatever language you wish to read it – and then telling the world about it. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Goodreads. All good. Just use the hashtag #germanlitmonth when you share your thoughts.

Don’t have a clue what to read?  There’s a veritable database of reviews over at to help you find something appealing.

This year’s programme is a little different. Or, to be more precise, there are two programmes.

Programme 1

Unable to visit Germany this year for pandemic related reasons, Lizzy has an acute case of Fernweh, and has therefore decided on a virtual tour of Germany. One which will include all 16 Bundesländer, one way or another. Primarily through literature interwoven with memory.

Programme 2

I have decided to focus on four authors of interest, and chosen authors mean that there are weeks in which the spotlight will also  shine on Austria and Switzerland. My itinerary looks like this:

November 1-7  Sophie von La Roche

November 8-14 Max Frisch

November 15-21 Ingeborg Bachmann

November 22-28 Siegfried Lenz

The fourth week will include a Literature and War readalong of a recently discovered Lenz novel, The Turncoat. The discussion will take place on Friday 27.11.

As always, you can read as you please throughout the entire month.

We look forward to your company and discovering some scintillating German-language literature together.

Daniel Glattauer: Forever Yours (2014) – Ewig Dein (2012)

Ewig DeinForever Yours

I’ve read two of Glattauer’s books Love Virtually and Every Seventh Wave and enjoyed them both. When Forever Yours – Ewig Dein came out two years ago I got it but didn’t get a chance to read it. Now that the English translation just came out, seemed to be a good time to pick it up. As you can see I added the German and the English cover. I find the German one so much better.

What a peculiar book. Not so much because of the story but because of the way it was written. The distanced and highly ironic style that Glattauer uses here made me wonder “What is this meant to be?”. I still have no clue. Is this a psychological thriller? A satirical analysis of a relationship that goes more than a little wrong? The combination of the two? A mix between parody and realistic story?

It starts simple enough. Judith, a 30-something single woman, owner of a shop that sells lamps, located in the heart of Vienna, meets Hannes while shopping. He accidentally tramples on her heel. Not exactly a great way to chat someone up but Judith accepts to meet him for a coffee. Hannes is a 42-year-old architect, specialized in designing pharmacies.

At no time does the reader get the impression that Judith fancies Hannes but he seems to be so besotted with her that she sort of slides into a relationship with him. Mostly because she’s flattered. While she’s not into him, she’s into the way he sees her. In spite of this, she soon feels suffocated and tries to end it. That proves much more difficult than she would ever have imagined.

At this point the book turns into an accurate and scary depiction of stalking. Hannes doesn’t let go. He follows her, smothers her with signs of affection, and, slowly Judith starts to lose her mind.

The book doesn’t end there and many twists and turns follow until the chilling ending.

It’s very rare that I like the beginning and the end of a book but not the middle. Many of the chapters that Glattauer calls phases are too far-fetched and far from realistic. I also found many of Judith reactions questionable. And at the same time the way Glattauer wrote about this made me question his intentions.

This isn’t Glattauer’s best book, it’s even dubious at times. It was still readable, had a lot of pertinent observations and the end was good. It’s a rather unusual psychological thriller, but for me it was rather a disappointment. I’m not sure stalking should be the topic of a parody.

Vicki Baum: Grand Hôtel – Menschen im Hotel (1929)

Vicki Baum was an Austrian novelist most famous for her Berlin novel Grand Hôtel aka Menschen im Hotel published in 1929. Although this book made her one of the early bestselling novelists and is still widely read in German it seems a bit difficult to find English copies. But since her far lesser known book Life and Death in Bali has just been reissued I hope that her other books, especially Grand Hôtel, will be republished as well. In any case, it is possible to find used copies. Part of the long-lasting success of the novel comes from the fact that it was made into a movie starring Greta Garbo Grand Hôtel (1932) and later into a German movie Menschen im Hotel (1959) starring Michèle Morgan and Heinz Rühmann. Vicki Baum wrote far over 50 novels, 10 of which have been made into movies.

Grand Hôtel is set in a luxurious hotel in Berlin between the wars. It’s walls shelter a microcosm of German society. The novel draws a panorama of the society and the times, reading it is fascinating and gives a good impression and feel for the time and the people. Vicki Baum includes a wide range of characters, the porter who waits for his wife to give birth to the first child, the aristocratic head porter Rohna, the many drivers and maids as well as some very interesting guests. Including the employees of the hotel gives the book a bit of an upstairs-downstairs feel and permits insight into the lives of the “simple people” who earn just enough not to starve.

The main characters are the guests. Dr. Otternschlag is the first to be introduced and he will also be the one closing this novel as he is almost part of the establishment. He stays here year in and year out, sits in the lobby and does nothing much. Badly wounded in Flanders, half of his face is just a scarred mass with a glass eye, he has lost interest in life. Wherever he goes his little black suitcase travels with him. The suitcase is packed for his final trip. It contains a large amount of morphine vials which he intends to inject should he be finally too disgusted by life. For the time being, he endures living but eases it with a regular nightly shot.

The Russian ballet dancer Grusinskaja is another important character. She is an aging beauty who is less and less successful. Her dancing lacks spirit and the public punishes her by leaving the theater almost before the final curtain. Once the lover of a Russian aristocrat, she is now still admired for her looks but not many fall in love with her. She reminded me of Gloria Swanson in the movie Sunset Boulevard or Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.

The astonishingly handsome Baron von Gaigern is one of the most joyful characters. He is easy-going, always happy, a womanizer and a con artist. Nobody knows that all he has left is his title and that he is without any financial means. He too was in Flanders but apart from a tiny scar on his chin he seems unharmed.

The industrialist Preysing has come to the hotel for an important meeting. If the business men he will meet, will not sign the contract, he is done.

And there is the terminally ill accountant Kringelein, one of the many employees of Preysing.  Kringelein hasn’t done much else than save money all his life. He has never treated himself to anything and now, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, he has left his wife in some little provincial town and travelled to Berlin to spend all his savings and to finally live.

Flämmchen (little Flame) is Preysing’s temporary secretary. She is very young, as good-looking as Baron von Gaigern, good-natured but without much luck. Because she can’t find work, she started to model and sells her company to business men.

During the course of three days these people meet and interact. Some fall in love, some help each other, one kills one of them and at the end it’s not entirely clear who is a winner and who is a loser.

The character portraits are the strength of this novel. And the variety of themes. I was amazed about the range. It isn’t only about aging, the loss of success and fraud, but it also shows the aftermath of WWI. The war has left its mark on the people, their faces and their souls and changed the society forever. These people are very frivolous and venal. The meaning of life for them equals having a good time. If you want to have a good time you need money. And so another of the central themes is money. There is a whole chapter in which Preysing and his consultant discuss how they want to raise the value of the stocks of Preysing’s factory. What they do to achieve it, sounds so modern.

It’s interesting that the characters can be divided into two diametrically opposed groups. One group embraces life fully and greedily while the other one is weary and suicidally tired of it.

When you read a novel like Grand Hôtel that isn’t only set in the 20s but has been written at the time, you see the whole difference of a historical novel and one that depicts it’s time. Vicki Baum has an insider’s knowledge that is hard to achieve through research. I would really recommend this novel to anyone interested in the era, to those, like me, who love novels set in hotels and to all those who like a character driven story.

I would be very interested to know if anyone has read this one or any of her other novels. The way she described the society of the 20s is a very anthropological one. I’m not surprised, after reading it, that Life and Death in Bali was suggested reading at university in a course on Balinese culture. Our professor said the book was so well written that it was as good as non-fiction in its detailedness and exact observation.

The review is part of German Literature Month – Week III Switzerland and Austria

Alois Hotschnig: Maybe This Time – Die Kinder beruhigte das nicht (2006) Short Stories

I’m glad I discovered this short story collection on Andrew Blackman’s blog thanks to his intriguing review (here is the link). Austrian author Alois Hotschnig is well worth reading. While I don’t see any resemblance with Thomas Bernhardt as some critics did (despite the fact that they are both Austrian), I did find quite a lot of parallels with Kafka, Patricia Highsmith and with one of my favourite authors, Dino Buzzati, another master of the uncanny. Hotschnig describes situations and people who make you feel quite uneasy.

Freud has written an essay called Das Unheimliche which is usually translated by The Uncanny. “Uncanny” does however not capture the full meaning of the word “unheimlich”. Many books, essays and articles have been written about the difficulty to translate the word into other languages. What I’m getting at here is the fact that all of Hotschnig’s stories represent this concept. “Das Unheimliche” as defined by Freud signifies an instance where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange or uncomfortably familiar. (If you are interested in Freud’s essay here is the English translation).

The collection contains 9 short stories which circle all around people who watch and wait. Just the fact that they don’t do anything but that their presence can be felt at any moment makes them scary. Usually we are afraid of people doing something bad to us but in these stories the fact that the characters are constantly present and stare and watch feels menacing. It gets even more creepy once you realize the narrator is part of this. He is someone who has given up on life and stares and watches. Hotschnig’s stories illustrate incredibly well what passive-aggressive is all about.

The title story of the English edition Maybe This Time captures another uncanny element. In this case it’s the presence of an absence. The parents of the narrator don’t go out anymore as they wait for Walter, the father’s brother, to appear. The children have never seen him. They know he exists but they never meet him. Either he has just gone or he will arrive after they went. Without being there he is omnipresent and the people in the story are like the soldiers in Buzzati’s Deserto dei Tartatri waiting for something that will never happen without realizing that their life will be over without having been lived.

Identity is another element that Hotschnig explores. In his last story called “Du kennst sie nicht, es sind Fremde” (which I would translate a s “You don’t know them, they are strangers”), a man is someone else every time he enters his apartment. The apartment changes as well and so do the people he meets. Depending on whom he faces, he is another person and after a while he chases this experience of seeing himself as someone else through other’s eyes.

I can’t say anything about the translation as I read the German original. They only thing that struck me was the title. Very often the title of a collection of short stories is equal to the title of one of the stories in the book. The German original is called Die Kinder beruhigte das nicht which means “This didn’t calm the children”. There is no story in the book with this title but the title itself has something unsettling, captures the mood of the book. Why the editor of the English translation chose the title  Maybe This Time which is also the  title of one of the stories, eludes me. It’s as if a tiny but significant part had been left out.

As abstract and intellectual as the themes may seem that Hotschnig explores, it’s important to add that his stories are full of vivid descriptions of everyday life. With a few words he evokes the quiet calm of a garden in the early morning which is only disturbed by the distant voices of children. It’s because these stories capture the familiar so well that the unfamiliar strikes us with so much force.

On the History of Stefan Zweig’s Balzac

About a year ago I inherited my mother and my grandmother’s books. They fill up more than one cellar. We are talking about thousands of hardbacks as both never bought paperbacks. They didn’t think they were looking good on the wood shelves. And they removed all the dust jackets which is not helpful as there are so many that may or may not be good but I have no clue what they are about.

To cut a long story short there are also innumerable classics and collected works of many an author. You can find the whole works of Goethe, Schiller, Romain Rolland, Upton Sinclair, John Galsworthy…

I remembered that I had seen a 50s edition of Stefan Zweig’s Balzac somewhere and – oh wondrous moment – found it within a minute. Dusty and with a somewhat musty smell but nicely intact. What surprised me more than the speedy recovery of the book was the afterword and I realized I had had no idea how the book came to be, let alone that Stefan Zweig meant this to be his magnum opus, his most important work. Considering that literary biographies were something he excelled at we can easily deduce how important his Balzac must have been for him.

The afterword in my Balzac edition has been written by Richard Friedenthal, Stefan Zweig’s friend who got to be the literary executor of the manuscripts that had remained in Europe after Zweig fled to Petrópolis where, in 1942,  he ended his life together with his wife.

It took Stefan Zweig over ten years of working, compiling, taking notes and rewriting but when he died, Balzac was still not finalized, or so he said. He managed to finish Die Schachnovelle or Chess in Petrópolis and his autobiography. However he had wished to finish the Balzac as well and had asked Friedenthal to send the manuscript to Petrópolis, which he did, but the papers never reached Zweig. By the time it arrived in Brazil, Zweig had already ended his life. The mansucript was sent back to Friedenthal who then sorted and edited what was, according to him, almost finished anyway.

Zweig had written the last draft of the Balzac in Bath, where he had stayed before emigrating to the US and from there to Brazil.

Zweig’s book Drei Meister or Masterbuilders of the Spirit already contains an essay on Balzac, together with essays on Dickens and Dostojewski. But that was just like warming up. Clearly the topic of Balzac was far too important to him to be left in the form of an essay only.

As Friedenthal points out, Balzac was of supreme importance for Austrian literature. It was the reception of authors like Hugo von Hofmannsthal who contributed to a large extent to Balzac’s fame during his lifetime.

Hofmannsthal said about him that he was “the biggest substantial imagination since Shakespeare”. The Austrian authors thought of him as the incarnation of literary potential. Zweig thought pretty much the same and despaired many times during the composition of the book, it seemed almost too enormous an undertaking.

When Friedenthal, who lived in London during the Second World War, looked at the manuscript, after Zweig’s death, he saw that it didn’t need a lot of changes and undertook to edit what he got. Reading what he writes about it makes you think that it is a miracle this book was ever published. Friedenthal describes how it was literally ripped out of his hands twice when, during the Blitz,  the house he lived in was bombed. Apparently one can still see bits of plaster and little splinters of glass in the original manuscript. On the papers are numerous notes and remarks of Stefan Zweig’s wife who helped him correct and edit his works. Zweig had already written “For the editor” on the front page which led to Friedenthal’s assumption that Zweig himself considered it to be fairly finished.

I am not sure when I will start to read Zweig’s Balzac, but I  know I will. These two authors seem such opposites. I know I’m simplifying things but it seems as if one of the two was so avid for life that it killed him and the other one so tired of it that he ended it.

Joseph Roth: Hotel Savoy (1924)

Hotel Savoy

Written in 1924, Hotel Savoy is a dark, witty parable of Europe on the verge of fascism and war.

I read Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March years ago in school and had sworn at the time that I will re-read it and read as much as I can of this incredible author. A while back I stumbled upon a really nice discovery in a local bookshop, a little slipcase containing seven of Joseph Roth’s novels. It consists of Hotel Savoy (Hotel Savoy) (1924) Hiob (Job) (1930) Radetzkymarsch (The Radetzky March) (1932) Beichte eines Mörders (Confession of a Murderer) (1936) Das falsche Gewicht (Weights and Measures) (1937) Die Kapuzinergruft (The Emperor’s Tomb) (1938) and Die Geschichte von der 1002. Nacht (The String of Pearls) (1939).

Roth is one of three Austrian authors (the other two being Robert Musil and Heimito von Doderer) who wrote about the end of the Danube Monarchy. The end of an era, the changing of the times, is often central in his books.

I decided to read Roth’s books chronologically and started with Hotel Savoy.

What an absolutely wonderful novel this is. Beautifully written, astonishingly varied in style, themes and characters. How can you capture so much in under 120 pages? The style is very different from Radetzkymarsch but not less enchanting. His sentences are very special, often composed of a list of nouns which might have been a challenge for a translator.

I am happy, once more, to shed an old live, like I did so often these past years. I see the soldier, the murderer, the man who was almost murdered, the resurrected man, the captive, the wanderer.

Or this powerful sentence:

I enjoy the floating feeling, calculate how many wearisome steps I would have had to climb if I wasn’t sitting in this luxurious lift, and I throw down bitterness, poverty, homelessness, migration, hunger,  the past of the beggar, throw them deep into the shaft, from where they cannot reach me, the hovering one, ever again.

Hotel Savoy is a “Heimkehrer Roman”, the story of the former soldier Gabriel Dan who after WWI and several years of having been a prisoner of war in a Siberian camp returns to Poland. He is a descendant of Russian Jews and one of his uncles lives in the city in which he stops. He wants to travel westwards to Paris or any of the other big Western cities. As far away as he can get from Russia and a painful past full of deprivations, it seems.

He moves into a room on one of the upper floors of the grand and glamorous looking Hotel Savoy. As pompous as it may seem from the outside, the interior is rundown.

The first three lower floors are reserved to rich people, bankers, aristocrats, factory owners and patrons. The upper floors belong to the poor who cannot pay their rent. After a few weeks their suitcases and luggage is confiscated and they are left completely destitute.

What a colorful group of people they are in those upper floors. Dancers and clowns and people who return from the war or people who have lost everything in one foolhardy transaction. They are eccentrics and lunatics and more than one of them is terminally ill. There is singing and dancing and cheerfulness and a lot of dying going on.

Gabriel hopes to be able to extract some money of his rich uncle, Phöbus Böhlaug, but to no avail. His uncle’s avarice is frightening.

There is nothing else to do for Gabriel than stand at the train station daily and hoping for work. Every other week the train station is flooded by prisoners returning from the camps. One day he meets one of his old comrades the peasant Zwonimir.

What a character, this Zwonimir. Full of life, exuberant, funny and droll. He makes friends easily has a funny sense of humour and detects everything phony in the rich and pompous people around him.

They work hard and enjoy themselves in the evening, drinking copiously, going to cabarets and the vaudeville, walking through the city, exploring the quarters where only Jews live.

I always enjoy novels set in hotels. They are full of interesting characters from the most diverse social backgrounds. In this inter-war period hotels were often the only place where people could stay. It took those who returned from the war an awfully long time to get back to their homes and they had to stay somewhere on the way. Others had lost their houses or just fled the countryside.

It is a fascinating microcosm this Hotel Savoy. The very poor and the very rich rub shoulders.

One of the central episodes is the arrival of Henry Bloomfield an incredibly rich banker who left Europe for America but returns once a year to his hometown. No one really knows why he chooses to come back to this little town when he could stay in Berlin.

While he resides at the Savoy, people cue up to talk to him and present their business ideas hoping he might finance them. Gabriel is lucky and is chosen by Bloomfield as temporary assistant. He will listen to all the stories and sort the valuable ideas out.

This novel has really everything. It is funny, sad, picturesque, touching and bitter-sweet and the ending is perfection. Roth describes people, the hotel and the little town with great detail. And every second sentence bears an explosive in the form of a word that shatters any illusion of an idyllic life. Roth served in WWI and never for once allows us to forget that the horror of one war and subsequent imprisonment have only just been left behind  while the next one is announcing itself already.

I was reminded of other novels set in hotels, pensions or clubs like Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, Vicki Baum’s Menschen im Hotel (Grand Hôtel), Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Assouline’s Lutetia, Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull and Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac.

I am sure there are many more. Do you know any others?

I translated the quotes from the original German. Any mistakes are entirely my own.

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.