Devotion – Die Widmung by Botho Strauss – A 1977 Club Review

I’m notoriously bad these days when it comes to participating in blogging events, but I always try to read at least one book for Karen and Simon’s “Club” – no matter what year they choose. This week was dedicated to 1977. It was a particularly good year and I could have chosen many books from my piles. I picked Botho Strauss’ novella DevotionDie Widmung because I’ve had it for ages and because it was said to be a stellar piece of writing.

Botho Strauss was first known as a playwright before he started to write fiction. DevotionDie Widmung is considered one of his best works. It tells the story of Richard Schroubek who has been abandoned by his girlfriend Hannah and can just not get over it. It’s 1976, a brutally hot summer in Berlin. In an attempt to fully immerse himself in his feelings of loss and abandonment, he takes leave from his work as a bookseller and stays at home where he spends endless days exploring every facet of his grief and writes it down. The bookseller has turned writer. While writing and tormenting himself, he hopes Hannah will return eventually. Latest, when he gives her his writing.

This is a stunning short novel. It’s neither plot- nor character- but mostly language-driven. It might be the best piece of writing, style-wise, I’ve read in quite some time. The book is in many ways a rant. The rant of a man who has been left and doesn’t understand why. But also of  man who is very different from most people and very isolated. This may sound a bit like Goethe’s Leiden des jungen Werther but it’s not like that at all. Here, the tragedy always veers towards the satirical and the book is often funny. Especially during the rare moments when Richard interacts with someone else. Richard is an astute, sharp observer. He dissects people’s behaviour, their opinions, things he reads or watches on TV and his feelings of loss and grief. While not as lyrical as Swann in Proust’s work, he’s just as analytical.

The longer the story progresses, the more his feelings vanish and that is a new source of sorrow. Celebrating his despair filled the void that the loss of dialogue and companionship left.

Richard is a character-type that I’ve come across several times in literature. He is one of those, like Melville’s Bartleby, who refuse to take part. Naysayers who don’t want to participate in our society. In Richard’s case it’s the loss that catapults him out of his normal life and makes him look at the world around him and at himself with critical eyes. Only Hannah is perfect. In his memory that is.

Because this is so language-driven and because I’ve read it in German, it’s hard to convey how brilliant it is. I can only say, I don’t envy the translator. This must have been extremely difficult to translate.

I’m not sure why this book is called Devotion in English. The German title means “Dedication” and I don’t see why it wasn’t kept. There’s an instance, in which Richard writes about his devotion, but I don’t think it justifies the change of title.

I found a lot to admire in this book and the observations, expressions, figures of speech, are all brilliant, but it was not an entirely accessible book. Not because of the lack of plot or because it’s language-driven but because it very often changes from first to third person and it’s not always clear why and who is the narrator. I should have read it more closely to avoid this type of confusion. I mention this, so future readers know, this needs very attentive, close reading.

Here’s a photo of Botho Strauss and Cate Blanchett. She played Lotte in his play Big and Small.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

Before reading The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, I could have sworn I’ve read it already. It’s one of those tales most of us are so familiar with that it’s easy to understand why I thought so. It’s always interesting when we then finally read one of these books, to see how much of what we thought we knew corresponds to what the book is really about. In this case, funny enough, hardly anything. Yes, there’s a doctor, Dr Jekyll, who experiments with a substance that turns him into his evil alter ego, Dr Hyde, but that’s it. The finer details were completely different and so was the structure. I’d expected a first person narrative, from beginning to end, a bit like some of Edgar Alan Poe’s tales, but what I found is a rather diverse structure. At first some acquaintance of Dr. Jekyll tells the tale or rather, how he meets Mr Hyde and how revolting he finds him. Then there are other people’s stories and finally letters from Dr. Jekyll.

The most interesting bit however is the psychological dimension of the story. I had thought that it was a bit of a black and white tale. Good Dr Jekyll turns into evil Mr Hyde, which isn’t entirely the case. Dr Jekyll is far from a good person and at first, he relishes Hyde’s evil deeds. It’s a lot as if his repressed urges surface and he can finally do what he always wanted. Initially what he does is merely shocking, but then he becomes truly murderous.

I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.

I’m not going to say much more, I’ve already revealed a lot.

I liked reading this very much. Not because of the story as such and definitely not because of the structure which I felt didn’t work so well, but because of the atmosphere and the writing. The descriptions of foggy London at night are eerie and atmospheric. Although, one might question, if its really London Robert Louis Stevenson had in mind. My foreword tells me that the descriptions match Edinburgh far better than London.

The writing is not only excellent when Stevenson describes the city but also when he characterises someone like here:

Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable. . . . He was austere with himself; drank gin when he was alone, to mortify a taste for vintages; and though he enjoyed the theater, had not crossed the doors of one for twenty years. But he had an approved tolerance for others; sometimes wondering, almost with envy, at the high pressure of spirits involved in their misdeeds; and in any extremity inclined to help rather than to reprove. . . . [I]t was frequently his fortune to be the last reputable acquaintance and the last good influence in the lives of down-going men.

While I liked large parts of this novella for the descriptions and the psychological and philosophical aspects, I think that for us, today, it’s also a problematic tale because of the description of Hyde. Hyde is evil and that’s easily detected by people who see him because he’s ugly and deformed.

Here’s one of the quotes that describe him:

He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment.

Nowadays, in speculative fiction, nobody would get away with describing an evil person in the way Hyde is described. It’s not only that he’s ugly and deformed but it’s said that one could easily sense that he was evil because of the way he looked.

The Strange Tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a classic of Victorian literature and now that I’ve finally read it, I can see why. What it says about the duality of human nature is interesting and still valid.

If you’d like to read another review of the novella, here’s a review on Brian’s blog.

I know that there are several film versions of this story, but I’ve never watched any. Which one would you suggest?

Truman Capote: The Glass Harp (1951) The 1951 Club

I’m glad that I finally managed to participate in one of Simon and Karen’s reading years series. It wasn’t easy to find a book for 1951, not because there aren’t many but because I already have read so many books published that year. Nonetheless, there were a few left on my piles. Dürrenmatt, Koeppen, and Heimito von Doderer’s Die Strudlhofstiege. The latter is a book I’m really keen on reading but it has almost 1,000 pages. I wasn’t in the mood to read in German, and so I picked Truman Capote’s novella – The Grass Harp. I’m so glad I did. It will probably be on the best of list at the end of the year.

Truman Capote’s novella The Grass Harp is set in 1930 or 40, in a small town in Alabama. It’s loosely inspired by Capote’s own childhood.

After the death of his mother, Collin’s father sends him to live with his two estranged cousins Verena and Dolly. The two elderly women live alone, together with Catherine, an African-American woman who pretends to be of Indian origin. It’s a very colorful household because the three women are, each in their own way, eccentrics. Verena is a formidable, bossy woman, the head of the household and main bread-winner. She’s a shop owner and seems to make a lot of money. Dolly, her older sister, is stuck in her childhood. Her room is painted pink all over, she loves to eat only sweets and her imagination’s always running a little wild. But she’s also entrepreneurial. As a kid, a gypsy woman told her a secret recipe. With the help of Catherine, who is also her best friend, and Collin, she collects herbs, tree barks, roots, and berries, and concocts a potion against dropsy. Catherine, who has no teeth, speaks with the help of cotton balls she’s pushed into the cavities in her mouth. Dolly’s pretty much the only one who can understand her mumbling.

Collin’s childhood is lovely. He spends most of his time with Dolly and Catherine who tell tales and behave just like children. They are often outside, go on long walks, collect things from the forests and the meadows.

Beyond the field begins the darkness of River Wood. It must have been on one of those September days when we were there in the woods gathering roots when Dolly said: Do you hear? that is the grass harp, always telling a story—it knows the stories of all the people on the hill, of all the people who ever lived, and when we are dead, it will tell ours too.

Until Collin is sixteen, nothing really troubles him or the household he lives in. But then Dolly makes much more money with her dropsy cure and Verena thinks she has to take things in her hands. Without asking Dolly, she buys machinery and a building and brings along a man who should help them commercialize the “gypsy cure”. Dolly, who never refuses anything, is shocked. She doesn’t want to sell her recipe. She doesn’t want to give up the only thing she has. In despair she, Catherine, and Collin, flee in the middle of the night and take refuge in a tree house.

The tree house is soon visited and surrounded by friends and enemies. An elderly judge and a young man whom everyone admires and despises alike, move in with them. The sheriff and other notables of the small town want to force them down but they fight valiantly.

This is such a lovely, heartwarming story, and told in such lyrical prose. It’s as beautiful as it is melancholy and sad. It’s a much older Collin who tells this childhood tale and the tone he uses indicates that a lot of the things and people he describes in this story, are long gone.

If some wizard would like to give me a present, let him give me a bottle filled with the voices of that kitchen, the ha ha ha and the fire whispering, a bottle brimming with its buttery sugary smells . . .”

While it is lovely, it has serious undertones. One could say this is a tale of misfits who stand up for their rights. While Verena is an unusual character for the time, a successful business woman, each of the others stand for a minority or group of people that’s not taken seriously. Catherine is an African-American woman who doesn’t let anyone treat her like a servant. Dolly might have what we would call “Special needs” today. Collin is a kid and back then, they mostly had to do as they were told. The judge is retired and with retirement, he’s lost a lot of the respect he used to have. He was a very just judge. A bit too just for the liking of some and now that he’s older, they want to pay him back.

I remember how I surprised I was, years ago, when I read that Harper Lee and Truman Capote had been friends since childhood and that she helped him with his book In Cold Blood. While I haven’t read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, thinking of that novella and other elements of Capote’s life, made me assume he was from New York. I realized then, that I had been mistaken. Reading The Grass Harp, makes it obvious where Capote comes from and, given the close friendship with Harper Lee, it’s not surprising that this slim book has a lot in common with To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe it inspired Harper Lee. The stories and the writing are different, but there are many similar themes; childhood, friendship, authority, love, justice, money, society, death, outsiders, life in a small town, the South, the role of women and African-Americans . . .

I’m grateful to Karen and Simon because they finally made me discover an author I’ve only known through his short stories and essays so far. What a wonderful, nuanced, and stylish writer. And so quotable.

I’ll leave you with some more of the quotes I liked:

But, ah, the energy we spend hiding from one another, afraid as we are of being identified.

 

What one says hardly matters, only the trust with which it is said, the sympathy with which it is received.

 

If you are not admired no one will take the trouble to disapprove.

 

Dreams are the mind of the soul and the secret truth about us.

Hermann Hesse: Klingsors letzter Sommer – Klingsor’s Last Summer (1919)

Klingsor's Last Summer

The novella Klingsors letzter Sommer  or Klingsor’s Last Summer is another of Hesse’s autobiographical books. Like Veraguth in Rosshalde, Klingsor is a painter. As you may know, Hesse painted as well, so the choice of painters as alter egos makes a lot of sense. While both books are inspired by Hesse’s life and both have painters as protagonists, they don’t have much else in common. Veraguth was a realist painter, Klingsor is an expressionist. Veraguth is trapped in a loveless marriage, Klingsor is a free-spirit living an excessive life on the brink of disaster.

The way Hesse chose to write his novella is interesting because he seems to paint with words, tries to capture Klingsor’s expressionist work, and uses some of the most interesting and nuanced names for color. Here too, I liked the descriptions. The story is set in the Ticino region, the Italian part of Switzerland. It has one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Hesse barely disguises the real names. He calls Lugano – Laguno, Sorengo – Barengo  . . . As much as I liked Rosshalde, I really didn’t care for this novella. I hated the main character too much.

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Klingsor is an exalted, self-centred, alcoholic, womanizer and possibly bi-polar. The passages in which he is frenetic and exalted, tries to have sex with every woman he meets, drinks one bottle of wine after the other, and sees death, decay and destruction everywhere, were hard to take. I’ve met a few people in my life who had traits of Klingsor. I really have a hard time coping with this type of energy, even on paper. That said, I might not do this book any justice.

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Nonetheless, I’m glad I read it because it’s interesting to see, how the changes in Hesse’s life are reflected in this story. When he wrote this, he’d left his wife and three kids. Subsequently, sis wife had to be sent to a psychiatric hospital and Hesse too saw a therapist. Even his painting seems to have changed and he moved away from realistic depictions, to more expressive forms.

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What I truly enjoyed is the way he captures expressionist paintings. His choice of words is so strong and powerful; we can see distorted landscapes, painted in striking colors. Towards the end, he paints a self-portrait that really comes to life.

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Klingsor’s letzter Sommer is a short book. It’s essential reading for anyone who loves Hesse but not a good starting point for those who haven’t read him yet.

The biographical elements I’ve mentioned here and in my earlier post are taken from Heimo Schwilk’s Hesse biography. It came out in 2012. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been translated yet.

Hesse bio

If you’d like to read another post on Klingor’s Last Summer – here’s Pat’s (South of Paris Books) review.

Thomas Mann: Tonio Kröger (1903)

Tonio Kröger

Tonio Kröger is considered one of Thomas Mann’s masterpieces, but only a few elements spoke to me, most of it infuriated me.  The writing is stellar, as usual, and the way he described Lübeck – the narrow alleys and gabled roofs – made me want to travel there, but the idea of the artist as tortured soul and ultimately superior was hard to stomach.

Tonio Kröger is the son of a German Consul and a Southern woman. He’s got his looks, – dark eyes and dark hair – and the name from her. From an early age on, Tonio feels he’s different, an outsider. Not only because his mother’s from the South, but because he loves books and art and feels like an artist. He first feels an intense love for blond and blue-eyed Hans and later for the blond, blue-eyed Inge. They seem to live in another sphere, a happier one, more immersed in life and what society expects from them.

Tonio wants to become a writer and finally, in his twenties, leaves Lübeck for Munich where he lives a life of debauchery, which disgusts him eventually. A long central chapter shows us Tonio discussing his views of art and life with the painter Lisaweta Iwanowna. Tonio is in his thirties now. Prematurely aged and sobered. Shortly afterwards, he departs for his hometown Lübeck. He visits his family home, which has been sold after the death of his father. One part of the stately home houses a public library. Tonio walks through the once familiar rooms. There’s nothing here for him anymore. He leaves for Denmark. At the hotel in Denmark he meets Hans and Inge again. They are married. He watches them without making himself seen. He’s less an outsider now than a spectator, still, he feels keenly that he’s different and decides to return home which isn’t Lübeck anymore.

A last letter to Lisaweta tells us he’s made peace with himself and will return to Munich for good.

The descriptions and the structure of the novella are wonderful. The way Mann captures the feeling of being an outsider is something one can easily relate to. But I didn’t like the ideas contained in the book. Tonio suffers a lot and he would like to be an ordinary person, like Hans and Inge. He would like to be blond and blue-eyed because those people have an easier, happier life. He’s tortured because he’s no conformist, but an artist. This is so dated and clichéd, it’s painful. Plus the association of blue eyes, blond hair with health and strength made me shudder. There’s also a lot of arrogance in this depiction of an artist. Yes, Tonio does suffer – or says so – , but he very obviously feels superior too.

I don’t think you have to be a tortured soul to be a great artists. Feeling like an outsider and being a non-conformist, most probably comes with it, but it doesn’t mean you have to suffer. And it most certainly doesn’t mean you are superior. I can’t accept the idea of an artist (or anyone else) as a superior person  or as “chosen”. That’s pure hubris. Tonio Kröger is filled to the brim with hubris. The suffering Tonio professes felt more like a pose than real pain.

Has anyone read Tonio Kröger? How do you feel about it?

Neil Gaiman: Coraline (2002)

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I’m slowly reading all of Neil Gaiman’s novels. I just love the way he combines the familiar with the uncanny and Coraline, a deliciously creepy tale, is one of the best examples of this ability. I often think I already know a Neil Gaiman story or novel when I begin reading it, but then, all of sudden, half-way in, he twists the story and what seemed like something I’ve read before turns into a new and highly original tale.

Reading Coraline reminded me of the discovery of Narnia in C.S. Lewis’ book and it also reminded me of Alice in Wonderland. Only the land that Coraline explores isn’t a wonderland, it’s dark, creepy territory.

Coraline is a small girl who has moved into a new apartment with her parents. The apartment is in a big, old house, surrounded by a vast garden. In the apartment below Coraline’s live two former actresses, in the apartment above, an old man who pretends to have a mouse circus.

Coraline is bored. The family moved in during the school holidays and Coraline has no friends in the new neighbourhood yet. Her parents are kind but always busy and distracted. At times it seems they wouldn’t even notice if Coraline was gone.

Then Coraline discovers the door and through that door she enters a reversed world. It’s the same apartment house, the same people live in it. Only things seem more beautiful at first. There are doubles of her parents and they are much more attentive. There’s a black cat that can speak. It’s the same black cat Coraline saw in her own world, only there it wasn’t able to talk.

When Coraline notices that the eyes of the other mother and father are made of buttons, and when she realizes that the other mother wants her to stay, she knows this world is a sinister place.

Will she be able to return to her own world? Will the black cat help her? And what about those ghost children? Will Coraline be able to free them?

What I loved best about Coraline, is how it got darker and darker towards the end. At first it seems a simple tale of a lonely girl finding another, better world that looks almost identical to her own, but then, slowly, she discovers more and more unsettling elements— rats who carry keys, snow globes with little people in it, button eyes, dead children and a lot more. The best element comes towards the end. Unfortunately I can’t write about it, or I would spoil the fun of reading it for the first time.

There is one thing that bothered me though. I’m not fond of black cats in fantasy novels, especially not when they have a few negative traits. This one is a helper but it has a lot of creepy characteristics too. There are too many countries that are superstitious of black cats, and, as long as this is the case, I find the use of black cats highly problematic. Halloween is upcoming, and, like every year – it’s a terrible time in many places for black cats. I would have wished he’d not used a black cat.

I wrote at the beginning that Gaiman combines familiar and unfamiliar elements. He uses stories we all know, but he also combines realistic descriptions of everyday life with fantastical elements. Coraline’s boredom, the way her parents treat her —kindly but without fully acknowledging her — is done very realistically.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but now, with the weather turning more autumnal, I feel like watching it soon.

 

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.