The Turncoat, published posthumously in 2016 for the first time, was actually Siegfried Lenz’s second novel. His first novel Es waren Habichte in der Luft came out in 1950. Because it was successful, the publisher signed a contract for a second novel with Lenz. The first draft of the manuscript received a lot of praise but after he rewrote parts of it and handed it in for a second time, the publisher refused to publish it. They didn’t want a novel on a deserter who joined the partisans. The novel was forgotten until 2014, when Lenz told his publisher about it.
The Turncoat tells the story of Walter Proska, a Wehrmacht soldier. It is set on the Eastern Front, towards the end of the war, during summer 1944. The Wehrmacht has already withdrawn from the front, but there’s still a ramshackle Fortress, in the middle of the forest. After almost being blown-up by Polish partisans, Proska, who was looking for his unit, is told to stay at the Fortress. The Fortress is located near the Ukrainian border and run by a Corporal who is constantly drunk and gives the most absurd and shocking orders. It looks like he’s gone completely mad. The Fortress is populated by a motley crew of simple soldiers. Among them is a cook who has a chicken as a friend, a young student whose philosophical ideas slowly awaken Proska, and a soldier who mounts young birch trees in sexual frustration.
Days at the Fortress are absurd and boring. They are filled with dangerous patrols, disgusting food, mosquitoes, and orders the soldiers don’t feel like following. They are surrounded by partisans who try their best to kill them all. After finally being overrun by partisans, Proska and the young student join them.
There is a sort of love story between Proska and a young Polish woman who belongs to the partisans. He meets her before he joins the unit and later again in the woods.
I was surprised by this book. I expected something a little different. Not a book with such a colourful cast of droll, whimsical characters. The novel is satirical, which served to underline the absurdity of these last days of war. The soldiers wonder constantly what the heck they are doing there. What’s going on? What are they fighting for? Not one of these characters is a patriot. They are conscripts and couldn’t care less about the war; they want it to end and go back home.
While it had so many amusing, bizarre scenes, I still found it hard to read. There are several instances of cruelty against animals. Some in flash backs, some happen during the story. Animals and the way they are treated or mistreated is a frequent trope in war stories. It mostly serves to either emphasize that people have lost their humanity or that they are worse than animals. The scenes are short but I still found them upsetting.
What I liked the most was the writing. Lenz is a powerful, evocative, and very descriptive writer. I loved the symbolism, the figures of speech that run through the novel, especially in the nature descriptions. I also liked the way the characters were described. Each one of them is so different, quirky. Their dialogue is often sarcastic and humorous. My only reservation regards the ending. I found it a bit confusing, but that didn’t lessen my appreciation of this book. The Turncoat is one of those novels that show the cruelty and absurdity of war. There are no heroes here, no winners, only losers.
The Turncoat has been made into a mini-series. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an English trailer.
When I was in my early twenties, I went through an Ingeborg Bachmann phase and read almost everything I could find by her. I loved her poetry so much. Sometimes when you revisit a writer that you loved ten or twenty years ago, you’re in for a disappointment. But rereading Bachmann’s poetry just made me realize again that she’s one of the greatest poets of all time. Her poems are mysterious and haunting and every time you read them, another part becomes meaningful. It’s not always easy to pin down what exactly her poems are about but that is what makes them so fascinating.
Back when I first read her, I wasn’t aware that she stopped writing poetry in the early 60s. There are still a few late poems, but most of her poetic work was written before 1961, the year she published her short story collection The Thirtieth Year. In an interview, she said she stopped writing poems because she didn’t want to be one of those who’d found a way to write successful poetry and would then go on, writing the same poems over and over again. She didn’t want to imitate herself.
There is, however, another interpretation, which, is more tragic. From 1958 to 1962 Ingeborg Bachmann was in a relationship with Max Frisch. The relationship ended in 1962. Both writers never really got over the ending, as Frisch clearly states in the quote I chose as blog title. “The end, we failed it. Both of us”. While Frisch would struggle until his death to come to terms and make sense of their relationship, the end almost killed Ingeborg Bachmann. She never really recovered.
I remember being surprised, at twenty, when I read that she was in a relationship with Max Frisch. Back then, I found it hard to imagine that a flamboyant personality like Bachmann would be with someone like Frisch who comes across as rather homey. They were so very different. Frisch, who was newly separated and about to get a divorce when they met, was used to a traditional family life. Before becoming a full time writer, he would work as an architect, while his wife was a housewife. Later, he would write in his attic, while his wife would do the housework and cook. It doesn’t seem like he ever expected this of Ingeborg Bachmann, but he expected a more structured life. From the beginning, living together would prove difficult. He found Bachmann rather chaotic. But that wasn’t the only difference. The biography I read pays a lot of attention to the way they experienced their surroundings, notably the landscapes, countries, cities, they lived in. Bachmann always looked for a mirror, an echo to her soul, while Frisch could just admire a landscape, explore a city and enjoy it. They met in Paris but then moved to Frisch’s hometown Zürich. For someone who was used to live in big cities like Vienna, Paris and Rome, Zürich was a shock. Switzerland in the fifties and sixties wasn’t exactly an openminded place. People frowned upon their living together. Bachmann found Switzerland stifling. They then moved out of the city to the country, which was even worse. Finally, Bachmann decided to move back to Rome and Frisch followed her.
Now she was in her territory but still the relationship remained difficult for many reasons. Ingeborg Bachmann would travel a lot and not tell Frisch when she’d be back. She would also keep their relationship apart from other people in her life. Almost as if she was living an affair. Even though, their life together was so dufficult, Frisch wrote continuously, driving Bachmann mad with the constant noise of his typewriter. It seems it even triggered writer’s block in her.
In the end, Frisch, who was genuinely suffering because she always held him at arm’s length, left her for another, much younger woman. Ingeborg Bachmann never really recovered from this blow. She didn’t see it coming, never would have expected that he’d leave her.
It wasn’t easy to read this book. I felt sorry for Bachmann, but not because Frisch left her, but because the portrait that Ingeborg Gleichauf paints, shows someone who suffers from mental illness. I would even say she had narcissistic traits. One of the things that got to Frisch for example, was that she didn’t seem to have a sense of humour. She took absolutely everything seriously and personally. He had to be very careful what he said and how he said it, because it could trigger difficult reactions. It would be too easy to blame Frisch, because he’s the man, and it looks like he just exchanged her for a younger partner. Bachmann herself seems to have given the story this spin occasionally. She also said that relationships between men and women were murder. There are many instances in her work that refer to that. I would have to read a Bachmann biography to find out more where this came from. It’s clear that she was damaged and suffering long before she met Max Frisch. I can’t blame Frisch for wanting to leave her. I think most people would find it hurtful, not to be introduced to their partner’s friends. Not to be mentioned in phone calls. Not to be told, when the partner would return from a trip. Frisch couldn’t take it any longer. Leaving Bachmann for another woman, was his way to protect himself. Of course, this is problematic, and it seems to have been a pattern in his love life. He often ended things like this. Whenever a relationship got stale or difficult, he would end it and jump right into another one. Preferably with a much younger woman.
Writing this biography wasn’t easy for Gleichauf as the correspondence between Bachmann and Frisch is not available yet. There aren’t even any photos of the two together. We’re told they loved each other very much but it’s hard to understand why they were together.
Bachmann’s life went downhill after the separation. A suicide attempt, abuse of pain killers and other drugs and, finally, her tragic death in Rome, in 1973. Seen from outside, Frisch did much better, but he does admit in interviews that he, too, never got over her.
While their respective work can be read without any knowledge of their relationship, knowing about it helps to understand the deeper meaning. Everything they wrote from then on, always did, to some extent, deal with their failed love story.
This is just a very brief introduction to a chapter in two great writer’s life. One could write much more about this complex and sad story.
Here is one of Bachmann’s most famous poems
Harder Days Are Coming
Harder days are coming.
The loan of borrowed time
will be due on the horizon.
Soon you must lace up your boots
and chase the hounds back to the marsh farms.
For the entrails of fish
have grown cold in the wind.
Dimly burns the light of lupines.
Your gaze makes out in fog:
the loan of borrowed time
will be due on the horizon.
There your loved one sinks in sand;
it rises up to her windblown hair,
it cuts her short,
it commands her to be silent,
it discovers she’s mortal
and willing to leave you
after every embrace.
Don’t look around.
Lace up your boots.
Chase back the hounds.
Throw the fish into the sea.
Put out the lupines!
Harder days are coming.
Here’s a short documentary on Bachmann. It’s well worth watching. Unfortunately, it’s only available in German.
The first of November is here and it’s finally time for German Literature Month.
As you may know from our intro posts, we have two parallel programs this year. Lizzy is reading literature from all of the German Bundesländer, while I host four author weeks, including a Literature and War readalong of a newly discovered Siegfried Lenz novel – The Turncoat– on November 27.
Week 1 – November 1-7 Sophie von La Roche week
Week 2 – November 8-14 Max Frisch week
Week 3 – November 15-21 Ingeborg Bachmann week
Week 4 – November 22-28 Siegfried Lenz week
Feel free to join us or read as you please. As long as you enjoy yourself.
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.
This year’s programme is a little different. Or, to be more precise, there are two programmes.
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.
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.
Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong Part 3 – “Chapters” 8/9
Reinhold is possibly the biggest villain in the story. Would you agree? Do you find his punishment satisfying?
I found him the biggest villain because he seems so harmless at first. Almost helpless. He really tricked Franz, making him help him, trusting him. But even without that, the Mieze story shows his cruelty and viciousness and then, on top of everything else, trying to frame his “friend” shows the extent of his depravity. In light of this, no, I don’t think his punishment was satisfying.
The quote that returns most frequently in the last chapters – at least as far I could see – is taken from Ecclesiastes (There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven . . . ) How did you feel about this use? Did you find it effective?
I found it downright creepy. Especially how it was used in the Mieze section, but also later on. Like an echo of evilness. It’s obviously not used in context. It’s one of those instances that made me want to read up on the book.
Were you surprised by the ending?
I was surprised and somewhat disappointed. I’m not entirely sure what I expected but not this. First the episode in which Franz is catatonic, and at a mental institution and then picking up work, like everything that happened before didn’t take place. Possibly, Döblin wanted to tell us he redeemed himself. His love for Mieze, is certainly a redeeming factor.
Looking back, what did you like the most about the book and what did you like the least?
At times I read it like a puzzle. Not the story itself, but the way Döblin used collage technique. Quoted songs, poems, the bible . . . It was fascinating to hunt them. Unfortunately, those were also the elements that I found annoying at times. There’s just too much and while it’s interesting to see what quotes he chose and how he changed parts of them, it made the book frustrating at times. It’s a book that requires close reading and I didn’t have the time to do that.
Would you reread it and/ or are you glad you read Berlin Alexanderplatz?
My answer is a resounding no. I will definitely not read it again. I’m glad I read it. as I always felt I was missing out because I hadn’t read it yet. I found it intellectually stimulating but not exactly enjoyable. At other times in my life, the stimulating part would have been enough. Not so now. I didn’t realize before starting it that it’s so long. My edition has just 400 pages, but they are densely packed. The copies in translation showed that it was closer to 600.
Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong Part 3 – “Chapters” 6/7
The German original calls the chapters “Books” not chapters. In my opinion this is a gross error and robs the English reader of seeing some intertextual links. How do you feel about this?
I feel it’s a problematic omission. As I mentioned in the previous post, I’m pretty sure that in writing Berlin Alexanderplatz, Döblin referenced Simplicissimus, which is also divided in books, not chapters, uses a similar structure with short summaries at the beginning of each chapter (there are chapters with long titles in the books). One of Döblin’s later works, the over 1000 pages long historical novel Wallenstein (maybe an excellent choice for next year’s readalong? – just kidding) deals with the 30-year war, the same era during which Grimmelshausen’s famous work takes place. By the time he wrote Wallenstein, he most certainly knew Simplicissimus, but looking at BA’s structure he already knew it then.
But even if these intertextual links wouldn’t exist, I’m not sure why a translator has to change “book” to “chapter”. It seems a bit shoddy.
Were you surprised to find out what happened to Franz after Reinhold pushed him out of the car? Do you find that Döblin is unnecessarily cruel to his creation?
It was a bit of a shocker and reinforced my earlier assumptions that Döblin likes to emphasize what a strong hold he has on his creature. Poor Franzeken is at his mercy.
What does Berlin Alexanderplatz tell us about Döblin’s “Menschenbild” – his philosophical conception of human beings?
I find his concept of man very pessimistic. Not only does it seem that people can’t better themselves, they are also puppets on strings without any freedom. They are driven and things happen to them. Once the “machine infernale” is set into motion, there’s no stopping it. Fate will get you, no matter what. At the time when he wrote this novel, Döblin was an atheist. He’d been army doctor during WWI, and I assume that might have shaken his faith. When he was writing Berlin Alexanderplatz, he was “Nervendoktor”, – psychiatrist. He must have seen his share of tragedy and depravity. All this seems to come into play in his work.
Do you have a favourite character so far?
I really like Herbert and Eva. Even crooks have a certain code of honour and while Reinhold is a character that doesn’t know any loyalty or honour, both Herbert and Eva are representative of this roguish code of honour, as I would call it and I like them for that. Yes, Herbert is a criminal and Eva a type of prostitute, or kept woman, but they are loyal to Franz and genuinely care. They help with anything they can.
In these chapters, we see Franz attending political meetings. What did you think about these sections and his friend’s reactions?
I thought the reactions were extreme. I can only assume they didn’t like him exposing himself like this and drawing too much attention. The meetings he attends are meetings of the communist party. Franz isn’t even a communist, he’s far closer to national Socialist thinking. I read these sections as criticism of communism. I don’t know anything about Döblin’s political convictions, but maybe anti-communism was his own position.
Most novels can be read without the reader knowing anything about the author’s life. What about this case? Were you compelled to read up on the author?
I find it always helps to know a bit about the author but often it’s not necessary. Not so in this case. I read up quite a bit. I was particularly interested in Döblin’s religion. For someone like me, who grew up in a Catholic environment, this was peculiar to read. While it’s very pessimistic, I also felt it had so many Catholic elements. It was interesting to me to know, while he was born into a Jewish family, Döblin converted to Catholicism. I could already sense it here and it helped me understand some passages and the use of some quotes.
I don’t think I’ve ever been this inactive during a German Literature Month and I’m sorry about that. I had made plans but now I even struggle to keep up with our readalong. It’s like everything that is annoying and time-consuming came at the same time, robbing me of what precious little time I had to begin with.
What do you make of Döblin’s structuring of the novel? The short summaries at the beginning of each chapter, each section? The montage technique?
I think the structuring works well in this context, as it breaks up the narrative and, in doing so, moves away from traditional storytelling techniques. Since Franz is pretty much a guinea pig for Döblin to demonstrate his world view, identification with the protagonist was never his aim. The short summaries convey an ironic tone but also mirror older books, that had a similar approach. I’m thinking of Candide, or Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus. Both have tragic heroes the authors use to illustrate their philosophy and world view. Obviously, the older protagonists are very different from Franz. They aren’t criminals or depraved people, but, just like him, victims of the circumstances.
Women and the treatment of women in Berlin Alexanderplatz …. Discuss.
This is such an interesting question. So far, we haven’t seen any positive depictions of women. There will be one in the next book but so far, I’m constantly shaking my head and would like to talk some sense into them. Why do they fall for these men? I can only assume it’s mostly about sex. Many of these relationships are between a pimp and his women, and those can be very complicated. Dependency and addiction come into play. Seeing how so many women are attracted to Franz, I was wondering what he looked like. I don’t seem to remember reading a description. The way Döblin depicts women made me wonder what relationships he had with women. But then again, one can’t say that the men are described in a more positive way.
This section introduces Reinhold, who will prove to be Franz Biberkopf’s main antagonist. What do you think of Biberkopf’s initial underestimation of Reinhold?
Unfortunately, underestimating Reinhold is quite typical for Franz who is anything but astute. In some ways, one could say, the author wanted to show that Franz is, despite what he does, not a totally bad person and he doesn’t immediately think bad of people or situations. You can’t be entirely bad, if you’re this naïve. One could also say, that Franz triggers something dark in Reinhold.
What was the highlight of this section for you? What the lowlight?
The last scenes were the highlight and the lowlight. I had a hard time believing that Franz didn’t realise was he was signing up for when he joined Pums, Reinhold and the others. I’m not entirely sure what Döblin wanted to tell us. That Franz really meant to become a better man, but was stupid enough not to see what was coming? Franz is decidedly not a very intelligent man, but I think Döblin’s intention was another one. Once more, Döblin shows us that Franz is a construct. An invention he uses to make us see certain things. He deliberately places him in harm’s way and then pushes him even further down, to illustrate how unfree Franz is. Franz can decide to become better as much as he likes, it won’t work because it’s not up to him. Society and fate are against him. And, most of all, his author who won’t stop before he has destroyed him completely. At least, that’s how it feels at this point.