The Turncoat – Der Überläufer by Siegfried Lenz – Literature and War Readalong Meets German Literature Month

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 The Wehrmacht has already withdrawn from the front, but there’s still a ramshackle Fortress, in the middle of the forest.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.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

I’ve long been a fan of Elly Griffith’s Dr Ruth Galloway mysteries, slowly reading one book after the other. There are twelve books by now, four of which I’ve read. She’s also been writing a new series, The Stephens and Mephisto mysteries. I was quite pleased to see that she’s now also writing standalone novels and since The Stranger Diaries, published last year, has gotten so much praise and was called a “modern Gothic”, I decided to read it.

The story is told from three different points of view. Clare Cassidy, a fortysomething English teacher, Detective Inspector Harbinder Kaur, and Georgia or Georgie, Clare’s daughter.

Clare teaches English at a school, parts of which are located in the house of a Victorian writer. R. M. Holland was famous for his chilling short story The Stranger. In her spare time, Clare is writing a book on the author. She used to be best friends with another English teacher, Ella, but for some reason, they aren’t really close anymore. When Ella is found murdered, Clare is unsettled for many reasons, one of which is a note found next to the body. It’s a line taken from The Stranger, a short story that hardly anyone knows.

Detective Kaur instantly dislikes the tall, beautiful Clare and suspects her to either know more than she admits or to be involved in the murder. When another body is found, under even more sinister circumstances, Clare begins to fear that she and her daughter might be next.

I absolutely loved the beginning of the story, told from Clare’s point of view. I loved the setting, the mystery, the characters, but then the book switched to Detective Kaur’s point of view and while her POV is convincing, I found the book immediately lost some of its drive and most of the atmosphere. When the third narrator was introduced, Georgie, it fizzled out even more. I did not care for her parts and would have wished they’d been left out.

That said, there were still elements that made this a gripping read, I just wished, she’d told it differently. What did not work for me at all was the ending. Was it a twist? Yes. Was it believable? Absolutely not.

I’m really in two minds about this book. There’s a lot to like here but, ultimately, because of the ending, it was a disappointment. I’ll still read more of Elly Griffiths but stick to the Ruth Galloway mysteries.

The Calligraphers’ Night – La nuit des calligraphes by Yasmine Ghata – A French/Turkish Novel – A Post a Day in May

Yasmine Ghata was born in France to a Turkish father and a Lebanese mother, the famous poet Vénus Khoury-Ghata. Yasmine Ghata studied Islamic Art. The Calligraphers’ Night – La nuit des calligraphes was her first novel. It was published in French in 2004, the Hesperus edition is from 2007. It’s currently sold out but used copies can be found very easily.

The Calligraphers’ Night tells a very poetic version of the story of Yasmine Ghata’s grandmother, the first female Turkish master calligrapher Rikkat Kunt. The book is told in first person, from the point of view of Rikkat. Rikkat Kunt was born in 1903 in Istanbul, where she also died in 1986. She was always drawn to calligraphy, the art that captures Allah’s breath, but at first she was married to a man she didn’t love. It wasn’t easy being a calligrapher for a woman but especially difficult at the time because calligraphy was on the way to extinction. Calligraphy and book illustrations were predominately Islamic art forms. But in 1928, attempting to modernize Turkey, Atatürk abolished the use of the Arabic alphabet in favour of a new Europeanized alphabet. The calligrapher’s work was threatened not only because it would lose meaning but also because Atatürk was not in favour of Islam.

Caught between a loveless marriage and those radical changes, Rikkat Kunt had to fight hard to pursue her calling. She finally got a divorce and worked as a calligraphy teacher at a university. Later, she met another man and another unhappy marriage followed. The son of that marriage would be the father of the author of this book.

This is such a beautiful book. The way it’s told is poetic. We really get a sense for this beautiful art and a better understanding for the religion. Everything has meaning in this art. Not only the finished product but the act of drawing the words or decorative borders of the books. The narrator explains, for example that the time the ink needs to dry, less than a minute in winter, several seconds in summer, corresponds to the presence of God.

Calligraphy is not only described as art but as magic. It is holy and without religion meaningless. Later however, Rikkat Kunt, too, began to modernize her calligraphy and strayed from the path of religion.

I mentioned before that Rikkat Kunt is the narrator, but I also need to mention that she begins her story after her death. The pages are populated with the ghosts of her predecessors. The ghosts of famous calligraphers are always presents and guide her. I think this symbolizes the tradition of this art. They all contribute to praise Allah and his prophet and one influences the next.

I loved this book so much. Not only is the writing beautiful and the story fascinating, but I feel like I learned so much about Turkish culture, language, history, and religion. The way this is presented is informative but never dry and fits into the story seamlessly. And I’ve always been fascinated by calligraphy. I also find Arabic so beautiful to look at that I wanted to learn it once.

Because being a calligrapher was so unusual for a women and because women at the time didn’t have a lot of freedom, the book is also about the role and position of women in Turkish culture.

I’ve been to Turkey but not to Istanbul. I always wanted to see it, now more so than ever.

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

Mapp and Lucia by E. F. Benson (1931)

Feeling a little under the weather a couple of weeks ago, I decided I needed something to cheer me up. E. F. Benson’s much-loved novel Mapp and Lucia seemed an excellent choice. I didn’t expect to have such a peculiar reading experience though. Mapp and Lucia has been on my piles for ages and ever since I got it, I saw people mention it as a novel they loved. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was planning to read it, the reactions were enthusiastic. Logically, I was sure, I would love it but for the first hundred pages I did not only not love it, I almost hated it. And then, I still don’t know why, I started to like it so much, that I still miss reading it. I believe that’s what some people call a book hangover.

At the beginning of the novel, we find Lucia and her best-friend Georgie, still in Riseholm, where Lucia owns the most beautiful house and occupies the centre of the social life. That is, she did before her husband died. While he’s been dead for over a year, Lucia felt it was her duty to still live like a recluse. But enough is enough and she’s planning to re-enter Riseholm’s social life and be its queen again. Georgie who missed her shenanigans, is happy that she’s finally back. We’re led to believe that her mourning was only in part real, a lot of it was just for show. And so are most things with Lucia. She does and says so much just for show and to grab the attention of the people around her. One of the funniest things she does for show, is pretending that she speaks Italian. She addresses Georgie, and other people, constantly with little Italian sentences and phrases, exclaims her joy or distaste in Italian morsels. The people of Riseholm and Tilling admire and envy her for that.

After reclaiming the Riseholm stage, Lucia is soon bored and wishes to conquer new territory. She decides to rent Mallard, the most beautiful house in Tilling. The house belongs to Miss Mapp, the centre of Tilling’s social life. Just like Lucia, she’s an attention-grabber, self-centred to the max, and never shies away from thinking about her own advantage. It’s the custom amongst the Tilling upper middle-class to sublet their homes in summer. Mallard being the most expensive one, it’s rented to foreigners; the next in line, Diva’s house, is taken by Miss Mapp. Diva rents someone else’s, and so on. Luckily for Lucia, Georgie decides to rent Mallard cottage and join her for the summer. He will prove, once more, to be her most ardent ally.

At first, things are amicable enough, but soon Lucia isn’t satisfied anymore and wants to become the centre of Tilling. Things are a bit different here though. While there was no real competition for her in Riseholm, there’s formidable Miss Mapp in Tilling to be reckoned with. She’s the most important person in Tilling and there’s nothing that she doesn’t preside over, nothing she doesn’t decide, much to the annoyance of some of the other inhabitants of Tilling. Lucia might always have wanted to become Tilling’s most influential person, but having competition spurs her on even more. In Miss Mapp, she’s found her match. While things don’t often turn out the way Miss Mapp has planned, she still wins more than one small skirmish in this war.

As I said, initially, I hated the book because I found the characters obnoxious and nasty. But once the reader gets to see behind Lucia’s mask and Miss Mapp defeats her more than once, it’s more and more enjoyable.

And there’s life at Tilling. A carefree life that’s so different from most of our lives nowadays. Not only because it’s set before WWII, but because it’s set among the British upper middleclass. Nobody works in this book. All the main characters own beautiful houses. All they think about is, where they will dine next, who gives the best tea party. Gossip and petty quarrels aside, it’s a peaceful world. The conflicts are entirely the character’s own making. Nothing dramatic ever comes from outside. At least not until the end. After a while, I found spending time in this world very comforting. And funny. It’s a terrific social comedy. Lucia’s pretence to know Italian is hilarious and so is the way they constantly try to outsmart each other.

When I got the book, I wasn’t aware that it was part of a series, and not even the first in the series, but the fourth. Luckily, it works very well as a stand-alone. As far as I know, this is the first of these books that feature both Lucia and Miss Mapp.

Has anyone read other books in this series? Are they just as good?

Karen Thompson Walker: The Dreamers (2019)

Karen Thompson Walker’s first novel, The Age of Miracles, was my favourite book of 2013. I adored that book so much. It’s mood, tone, and intriguing premise stayed with me. Needless to say that when I saw that she finally had a second novel out, I had to read it.

The premise of the The Dreamers is maybe not as intriguing as the apocalyptic premise of The Age of Miracles, but it’s still interesting. In a small college town in Southern California, a girl falls asleep and doesn’t wake up anymore. Soon there’s another one and then another one until there’s an epidemic. The city gets cordoned off. Nobody can enter, nobody can get out. More and more people fall asleep and don’t wake up. They all have one thing in common—they seem to be dreaming constantly. When the first girl dies, people get even more alarmed. The hospital is flooded and many of the staff fall asleep as well. Soon there are almost more sleepers than people awake and many of the sleepers die.

Unlike her first book, this one is told from multiple perspectives. The main characters are – two small girls whose father’s a survivalist, two college kids, a psychiatrist from out-of-town, and a husband and wife with a tiny baby. It was interesting to see the story told from many angles but unfortunately, it also meant it didn’t have the impact of The Age of Miracles. There was no specific tone or mood, just good-story telling. I definitely wanted to know why they fell asleep and what would become of them.

Once I finished it, I had to admit I felt underwhelmed. I thought at first that it was because my expectations were too high but then I realized that it reminded me too much of Camus’ La peste. It’s possible that this is just an unfortunate coincidence, but it’s equally possible she meant this as some sort of retelling. I didn’t read any other reviews or author interviews, so I have no idea. Unfortunately, for her, it’s hard to compete with Camus. That said, I’m sure many people will love this as it explores a topic we’re all, to some extent, afraid of – the outbreak of an epidemic. Her approach isn’t personal but social. She explores how fear affects people. She looks at the moral choices people make to either save themselves or help others.

There’s a quote from Catherine, the psychologist that I like a lot:

Worry, she reminds her patients, is a kind of creativity. Fear is an act of the imagination.

Seeing how people react to this unknown, contagious, and potentially life-threatening affliction illustrates the quote. People’s behaviour depends so much on what they imagine will happen.

The book also does ask some universal questions about illness and morality. There are so many who fall asleep and need help that, after a while, those still in good shape have to make choices who they will help. Someone they know? A younger child instead of an older person? Randomly? And what about pets – once food gets scarce inside of the city, should they still be fed?

Given the title, which isn’t The Sleepers but The Dreamers, it’s not surprising  that the nature of reality is another important theme. How do we really know we’re awake when sometimes dreams are so vivid we can’t tell we’re sleeping?

While I was a bit disappointed, expecting something with a similar tone and mood to her first novel, and because it reminded me of Camus, I still found this a compelling book. Her writing flows so well and the pace and structure are very balanced. And there are so many topical themes that make it ideal for a discussion group.

Joseph Roth – Radetzky March Readalong

You may remember talk of a spring Radetzky March readalong (or re-readalong for those who are already acquainted) during 2018 German Literature Month.  All who were interested in participating were asked to comment on their favoured month, and it turned out that April was favoured by most.

Now April is beginning to look rather full. Stu is hosting Penguin Classics week at the beginning of the month (8th-15th) and Karen and Simon are hosting the 1965 club at the end of the month (22nd-28th).  So where can Lizzy and I slot this readalong?

As the novel is divided into 3 parts of nearly equal length, we’ve decided on the first 3 weeks of the month. (There is a Penguin Classics edition, so, if you’re reading that, you can kill two birds with one stone!) And to tie in with #translationthurs, we’ll discuss Part One on Thursday  April 4, Part Two on Thursday April 11 and Part 3 on Thursday April 18.

We both loved the detailed discussion of the Effi Briest readalong, way back when during the first German Literature Month. So we’re intending to send out discussion questions for each part of the discussion.  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.

More details nearer the time, but we wanted you to pencil in the dates now – before the month of April just gets too full for most of us!