Looking Back on German Literature Month 2013


German Literature Month 2013 is over. It’s time to thank everyone for participating. Some have shown extraordinary enthusiasm. I’m not sure about the statistics of the last years but I’d say with 127 posts, this year was a success.

If you’d like to get an overview, visit our special German Litertaure Month page, which will guide you to all the contributions.

While the month ends on my blog, there is still something going to happen on Lizzy’s. A generous editor has provided a set of books for a lucky winner, who will be announced on Wednesday. Don’t miss visiting her blog then.

I was a bit afraid that there wouldn’t be as much interest this year but that was clearly not the case. Thanks again to all of you.

Hans Keilson: The Death of the Adversary – Der Tod des Widersachers (1959) Literature and War Readalong November 2013

Death of the Adversary

I wish it hadn’t happened but it did. I couldn’t finish Hans Keilson’s novel The Death of the AdversaryDer Tod des Widersachers. Not because I ran out of time but because – frankly – I hated it. I hate parables and books that whiff of Kafka (and are not Kafka) and  . . . If  you want to write about Nazism and the rise of Hitler, why don’t you mention it. Why does Hitler have to be referred to as “B”? Why is it never stated that the narrator is Jewish . . . It’s obvious, of course, but the way this is handled is just annoying.  Ilse Aichinger does a similar thing in her novel Herod’s ChildrenDie grössere Hoffnung, but it never feels like mannerism, it’s powerful, expressive and chilling.

I’ve read about 2/3 of The Death of the Adversary and there were passages I thought masterful but they had nothing to do with Nazism and/or oppression but were mainly taken from either childhood or young adult memories. There is a story in which the narrator tells how he forged stamps. This was psychologically subtle. There are other instances in which we see that Keilson’s observations are the result of his being a psychiatrist.

The book’s central story tells how a young Jewish boy first learns about his adversary “B”, a man who slowly rises to political power. His power can be felt in the growing number of followers and how they accept his theories and apply his laws and rules, which first lead to exclusion of the Jews, and then to their persecution. I don’t see what is gained in calling Hitler “B”. Did he want to show the universality of evil? He wanted to show the banality of it, which becomes obvious when he sees the man. And the way he treats the adversary as a recurring motif, showing that he is  s much on the inside as on the outside  . . .  Most of the time, I agree, things are not black or white but I don’t want this concept applied to Hitler and Nazism.

There is also a parable-in-the-parable – the story of the elks and the wolves, which I found particularly ambiguous. Elks were living under the best conditions, however they were not striving but dying. Why? Because there were no wolves. In order to live they would have needed adversaries.

I almost always finish books because some stories need every single passage to become a whole. Given that The Death of the Adversary is not only a parable but a disjointed book – I wouldn’t really call it a novel -,  I’m pretty sure, the end wouldn’t have made me think differently. From what I’ve seen so far, Keilson might be a good writer but he’s not a novelist.

I know that I’m one of a very few who didn’t like this book. But I really didn’t and although I’m sure that Comedy in a Minor Key is different – I’m not going anywhere near Keilson’s fictional work  for a while.

Other (favorable) reviews

Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

Mel u (The Reading Life)


The Death of the Adversary was the eleventh book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the Vietnamese novel The Sorrow of War aka Thân phận của tình yêu by Bao Ninh. Discussion starts on Monday 30 December, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Allegedly Because of Snow – Angeblich wegen Schnee (2013) A Winter Book edited by Babette Schaefer

Angeblich wegen Schnee

Consider this as a hybrid post for German Literature Month as two-thirds of the book include texts from other countries but it’s such an excellent book that I had to write about it now.

I found this snowy anthology in the bookshop recently and don’t think I’ve ever finished a collection of short stories this quickly. Anthologies are always a gamble and often at least half of the texts included don’t work for me. I think in this case there was maybe one story I didn’t like, everything else was either good or excellent.

If you are familiar with German anthologies you might now that they will consist of more than just German authors. This one is no exception. Of the 18 texts, stories and poems included, 11 are written by German writing authors, the others are from different other countries.

I’ll start with the German writing authors first.

Judith Zander – Germany. Zander is a poet. Her poem isn’t easily accessible but interesting. She has a way with words, combines metaphor and creates new words. She has not been translated so far.

Christopher Kloeble – Germany. Very interesting story of someone who takes revenge on a rapist. He hasn’t been translated yet.

Alex Capus – Switzerland. Several of Capus’ novels have been translated. Léon and Louise – A Matter of Time – Almost Like Spring. He is not an author who has tempted me so far. This story is rooted in the 60s. The narrator looks back on his childhood. An older self speaks to the younger person who goes through feelings of shame and inadequacy. The style was too unadorned for me, but I could imagine that would work well for others.

Arno Geiger – Austria. Geiger always receives a lot of positive feedback and prizes for his novels. One of which We Are Doing Fine has been translated. This anthology contains a chapter taken from the novel Anna nicht vergessen – Don’t forget Anna) and it’s told from the point of view of an obsessive compulsive stalker. Chilling.

Antje Rávic Strubel – Germany. Rávic Strubel is one of the younger authors of the anthology. She was born in the former GDR. The story in this anthology shows a writer with a powerful voice and a knack for quirky stories rooted in the hip culture of modern-day Germany.

Mascha Kaléko – Germany. Kaléko was a very famous Jewish-German poet, one whose trademark it was to write about the working life of typists, life in a big city, and small, mundane things. She was one of those who left Germany early. She emigrated to the US in 1938. It seems her work hasn’t been translated, which is a shame as the poems are like very short stories, evocative and beautiful.

Peter Schwiefert – Germany. I hadn’t heard of Peter Schwiefert before but the letter included in this anthology, which has been taken from the collection edited by his sister Angelika Schrobsdorff was quite a discovery. It’s a letter to his mother Elke who has been portrayed by Angelika in the book You Are Not Like Other Mothers. Peter Schwiefert died fighting for the Allies in France, in 1940. From Angelikas’ biography of her mother it is known that she was an amazing woman. Very free for her time. The tone of the letter of her son shows an intimate and very loving relationship. I’ll certainly read Angelika’s book and the collection of Peter’s letters to his mother.

Ingo Schulze – Germany. Schulze was born in the former GDR. Since his first publications Simple Stories and 33 Moments of Happiness (both available in English) he is one of the most important German authors. The text included here is taken from Orangen und Engle (Oranges and Angels) – sketches from Italy. I loved this so much, it put me in the mood to read everything he’s written. It’s an autobiographical story, set in Italy where Schulze spent some time. His most striking talent is to paint with words and to capture another culture, other cities with a few words but at the same time, he gives us an intimate view of a writer’s life.

Siegfried Lenz – Germany. Lenz is one of the German classics. Many of his books like The German Lesson – A Minute of Silence – Stella and many more have been translated. The story in the anthology is taken from a collection of short stories. It’s about ice fishing. Not much of a story but written in masterful style.

Peter Handke – Austria. Handke is a modern classic of Austrian literature and widely translated (The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick – Short Letter, Long Farewell – Slow Homecoming). I reviewed his A Sorrow Beyond Dreams here Like Grass he’s not as much liked in Germany or Austria anymore due to problematic political statements. As a writer he’s highly acclaimed. He’s not one of the most accessible but praised for his unique style. The text here is a short part taken from a novel. It’s the only contribution in the book that didn’t do much for me. It was well written but taken out of context it felt odd.

Thomas Glavinic – Austria. Glavinic is an interesting author and I’ve been meaning to read him for a while. The piece in this book was taken from a novel and while I didn’t really see where the novel as a whole would go, it made me curious to read more of him and I could see why critics and readers alike are drawn to his writing. These are some of the titles available in English The Camera Killer – Night Work – Pull Yourself Together. I’d like to read The Camera Killer, story of a double murder of which is said “ it is a disturbing game planned and executed with disturbing perfection.”

The other authors

Graham Swift -UK. I don’t think I need to introduce Graham Swift. The excerpt was taken from the novel Wish You Were Here. It didn’t really work as a standalone, but made me curious to read the book. I’ve read Swift before and liked him quite a bit.

Muriel Barbery – France. The anthology includes a chapter from her novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I’ve got it here and am pretty sure I’ll read it soon. It was one of the best contributions in this book. Dense, multilayered, original.

Mikko Rimminen – Finland. Rimminen was another new to me author. The text included was fast-paced and action-driven. It’s been taken from one of his novels. He’s been translated into Italian, French, German but not English so far.

David Guterson – US. I never felt like reading Snow Falling on Cedars but the excerpt in this anthology put me in the mood. I can see why some people may think he overdid it with the descriptions but I loved it.

Gyula Krúdy – Hungary. I’ve been meaning to read Hungarian author Krúdy for years now and keep on collecting his books. The short story here is a wonderful end-of the-year story full of melancholia and nostalgia. Of all the stories in the book I’d say this and the piece by Polish writer Wlodzimierz Odojewski were the most emotional and amazing regarding style. Krúdy’s work has been translated. Life is a DreamSunflower

Fan Wu – China/US.  Fan Wu is the author of February Flowers a novel I’d love to read since the story included in the anthology was one of the best. She was born in China and writes in English and Chinese. The story included here is a psychological portrait, rooted in a Chinese setting. Really appealing. Most of her stories are available in English in magazines like Granta, The Missouri Review  . . .

Wlodzimierz Odojewski -PolandThe biggest discovery was this new to me Polish author. His story takes place in an apartment at night, in winter. Young Marek and his older cousin Karola stay behind when thier parents go to church. The darkness invades the place and Marek feels a happiness like never before. The story is rich in atmosphere and relates memories of a childhood during war. The war is not very present, there are just hints here and there. Odojewski has been translated into several languages but not English. I’ve ordered one of his novellas and am really looking forward to start it.

Do you know any of these authors?

On Eduard von Keyserling’s – Schwüle Tage (Sultry Days) – (1916)

Schwüle Tage

Today we had the first snow. I woke to a fine layer of white in the morning. I don’t think it will stay, it’s already raining. Nonetheless it is strange to write about a book set during a sultry, sweltering summer.

Occasionally critics wonder why Eduard von Keyserling is not as widely read in Germany as Theodor Fontane. I often wonder why he isn’t translated into English. After having read the novella Schwüle Tage (Sultry Days) I think I can say with great certainty that being compared to Fontane may be the reason for both. Not because he isn’t as good and the comparison would be unfavorable, no, just because it’s wrong or, at least, not entirely correct. There is another important author whose work is far closer to Keyserling and that is Arthur Schnitzler. The subconscious plays a far greater role in Keyserling than in Fontane. Suppressed emotions and sensuality are more important than class and the rules of society. This particluar novella put me also in mind of an author I have discovered earlier this year: Hjalmar Söderberg.

None of his works illustrates this better than Schwüle Tage a short novella set during one hot summer. It is told from the point of view of an 18 year-old student who, failing his exams, can’t join his mother and siblings and spend his summer holiday  on the sea-side but has to stay with his patriarchical and domineering father on his estate. The young man is bored to death and quite afraid of his stern and pedantic father. Battling boredom and budding sexuality, he spends his days studying or yearning for fulfilment.

While the estate is busy during the day and servants and maids go about their tasks, mysterious things happen at night. Everyone seessm to lead a secret life during the night. One of the maids sings languorous songs in the park, his father goes for long walks, servants sneak around. Some of the servants tell the young man, that the night is the time during which everyone tries to satisfy their needs. The boy wants to participate and manages to seduce one of the maids.

Secretly the young man is in love with one of his cousins. The two girls are the only young people from the same social background he will see during this summer. He’s sad to know that the older and more seductive will get married and appalled when he finds out that she has a lover. Not only is he disappointed that she belongs to someone else but horrified to find out it is his father.

The end of the novella is unexpectedly tragic and will stay in my mind for a long time.

I loved how this tragic story was rendered, in impressionistic touches, and focussing on the hidden desires and yearnings of these people. They were all trapped in this rigid society and many a stern face was hiding great pain.

When I read this story I was reminded of many of Schnitzler’s tales and found it odd that a German writer, notably one from the Baltic sea, wrote like an Austrian. Only after finishing Schwüle Tage did I discover that von Keyserling studied and lived in Vienna for a long time and later moved to Münich where he stayed until his death. I felt that the influence was palpable. As much as I like Fontane, I love von Keyserling more because he adds a more interior, intimate layer to his writing.

I really hope that editors discover this amazing author and start to translate his work.

Barbara Honigmann: A Love Made Out of Nothing – Eine Liebe aus nichts (1991)

A Love Made Out of Nothing

Barbara Honigmann’s A Love Made Out of Nothing tells the story of a young expatriate’s journey back to Weimar to attend her father’s funeral. As the narrator remembers her father’s life, she explores her own past and relates her struggle to establish new roots following her emigration from Berlin to Paris. In its portrayal of a young woman’s complex relationship with her father, the novella offers a rich account of German-Jewish history and of the search for identity in the shadow of World War II.

This is my first book by German author Barbara Honigmann but it’s not going to be my last. I loved this novella. A Love Made Out of Nothing  – Eine Liebe aus nichts is written in a very intimate style, almost like a memoir. Honigmann usually weaves her own life into the narrative, blending fact and fiction.

The narrator, who lives in Paris, starts her story with the funeral of her father. He has died in Weimar and she wanted to attend. It’s the first time in years that she goes back to Germany. She’s born in East-Berlin after the war to Jewish parents who had spent WWII in England. After the war the father decides to live in the Russian sector.

Her father has been married four times, her mother was wife number two. She’s returned to her home country Bulgaria years ago and even lost the German language. There is no possibility for the narrator to communicate with her as she doesn’t speak Bulgarian.

During her childhood she spent all of her weekends with her father and stayed in contact with him ever since. A couple of years before his death, she leaves the DDR and moves to Paris, hoping that a new city, a new language would not only bring a new life but her own transformation.

Much of her emotional life is full of shadows and muted grief over the impossibility to live with the man she loves. All they have is a “Love Made Out of Nothing” as it proves to be impossible for them to live together. When she meets someone else that love can’t be lived either because the man returns to the US.

Memory, identity, languages, exile and emigration are the themes this small poetic book explores. The reasons why someone leaves his or her home country are complex. Political reasons, danger, a lack of freedom are triggers, but they are not the only motive. There is always also the wish to become another person and when that isn’t possible what remains is a feeling of loss and unfulfilled yearning. The narrator wishes to be rootless, but, paradoxically, in trying to run away from her home and her parents she imitates their life.

Barbara Honigmann is a Jewish author but she transcends the Jewish experience and captures the universality of her themes, making it easy for non-Jewish readers to identify. I have read the German edition of this book that’s why I can’t tell you anything about the second novella, which is contained in the English edition.

Helmut Krausser: The Great Bagarozy – Der grosse Bagarozy (1997)


To enjoy this novel you don’t need to be a fan of Maria Callas but you should at least be interested in her life, as The Great Bagarozy – Der grosse Bagarozy is to a large extent an homage to the late Diva. (When you look at the German cover you’ll notice that they chose to make that fact obvious. Not so for the English cover.)

Cora Dulz is a psychiatrist. A very bored one and not exactly someone you’d call compassionate. She’s bored with her marriage to a cardiac tax consultant whose greatest interest is to collect morbid obituaries. There is nothing else in his life he’s this passionate about. Although some hints tell us that he likes to hire cleaning women who perform their tasks naked.

Cora is equally bored by her patients whose ailments make her either yawn or laugh. When two of them commit suicide, she fears for her practice. During this troubled time a new patient appears. Stanislaus Nagy, a man who is obsessed with Maria Callas and states to have known her very well. He pretends to be the devil himself and maintains that he has accompanied Maria during most of her life in the form of a black poodle.

Now this is a story that wakes up Cora. Not only is she interested in this new patient’s story, no, she also falls in love with him and fantasizes constantly about having sex with him. When he doesn’t turn up anymore she looks for him and ends up chasing him until she finds him on the stage of a music hall performing as The Great Bagarozy.

Kraussers novel deliberately blurs every line and confuses assumptions. Is Nagy ill? Or maybe Cora is far more obsessed than he is? Is he really the devil? Could that be?

Whether Nagy is just a devilish man playing tricks on a bored psychiatrist or whether he really is the devil is for you to find out. In any case, he pushes Cora to commit something quite horrible in the end.

I found this novel to be interesting, witty, funny, full of symbolism and extremely well-written. Krausser has a way with words, many of his sentences are worth quoting, and his descriptions are unusual like when he says the sky was the grey of poisoned doves. I’ve always been fascinated by Maria Callas. The woman and the legend and the fact that she’s actually not that good a singer but was considered, and still is considered, one of the greatest. Her life was tragic until the end. If you’re interested in her you’ll learn quite a lot about her life. I loved that Krausser chose to add the macabre obituaries Cora’s husband collects. It added a Six Feet Under feel to the story. He also chose to add many photos of Maria Callas, which add another layer. It’s interesting how her pictures seem to mirror her voice. She could be so beautiful on one photo, and look really rough on the next. When she was younger she managed to sing quite a pure soprano (especially in Tosca) but later on she was much more of a mezzo-soprano (as in Carmen), which, as far as I know, was her true voice type.

The Great Bagarozy is a funny, wicked, entertaining book and a great homage to Maria Callas.

The book has been made into a movie directed by Bernd Eichinger.


Elke Schmitter: Mrs Sartoris – Frau Sartoris (2000)

Mrs Sartoris

Part confessional, part thriller, Elke Schmitter’s explosive first novel is the story of Margaret. Jilted by a rich boyfriend when only eighteen, she finds herself many years later married, with a daughter, to Ernst, a war veteran with a penchant for routine and order. Living out her days in a small German village she is emotionally frozen, until one day she embarks on passionate affair with a married man. Planning to run away with him, she seems unaware that her plan is a fantasy that can never come true, and similarly unaware of the shocking repercussions that could result from chasing such a dream.

Why does someone commit a crime? Especially someone who isn’t really a criminal, but an ordinary person. Mrs Sartoris is an ordinary person, still, she kills someone. How that happened and who she killed is at the heart of this captivating and masterful novel.

Mrs Sartoris is a troubled woman. She drinks too much, is unhappy and once upon a time she spent a few months in a psychiatric hospital. She lives with her mother-in-law, her husband and her daughter in a small house. The only person in her life she’s truly attached to is her mother-in-law. She makes life bearable. There is no warmth between her and her husband and, as we will learn later, there are reasons for that.

The book opens with a cryptic short paragraph in which Mrs Sartoris, who tells the whole story, writes about an incident. What it is will be revealed very slowly. Small chapters on that incident change with chapters on her life. Her childhood and unhappy love story, her dreadfully boring and conventional married life, her affair with Michael.

Mrs Sartoris isn’t an entirely unreliable narrator but she’s highly deranged and depressed which clouds her judgement.

The story as such is interesting and suspenseful. And there is a twist at the end, which is very well done. But what makes this book truly masterful is the way it’s told. There are passages in the narration that I would call “litanies” in which Mrs Sartoris enumerates things. In one instance she talks about all the meaningless sentences she doesn’t want to say anymore. Reading them in rapid succession is eerie to say the least and makes the reader think how often one uses empty phrases just like that. How many meaningful conversations do we have day in and out? Another litany enumerates all the things Mrs Sartoris has never had in her life and this reveals so much bleak emptiness, it’s  chilling.

Mrs Sartoris has been compared to Mme Bovary. I don’t think I would have made the comparison if the blurb hadn’t told me to make it. Sure, there is an adultery, but other than that? Mrs Sartoris’ husband is as conventionally boring as Charles Bovary, Mrs Sartoris is lost in a dream world and her lover resembles Mme Bovary’s lover a tiny bit but that’s that. I would, if I had to, much rather compare it to Tim Parks’ Loving Roger.

Mrs Sartoris is the tightly woven story of a life, an analysis of a crime written in a chilling, and revealing style that will haunt readers for quite a while.

For another take on the novel here is Stu’s review.