Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong – Part 2

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong – Part 1

Due to some time constraints this and next week, my post is very short.

Welcome to the #germanlitmonth readalong of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.  What enticed you to readalong with us?

When I buy a book in a bookshop, I sometimes keep the receipt. I did so in this case and that’s how I know that the book has been on my shelves for 19 years. I bought it in September 2000. I know that when I bought it, I was extremely keen on reading it. But for some reason I didn’t and because I always felt it was a book that had to be read during autumn – possibly because I visited Berlin in autumn – I postponed it from year to year. When Lizzy mentioned she wanted to read it during this GLM, I decided that the time had finally come.

Summarise your initial expectations.  Are they being met?

It’s pretty much how I expected it. Highly readable in some places, and more experimental in others. I struggled more reading the first book than I thought I would. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, but once I made more time for reading it and saw certain patterns in the storytelling emerge, I was captivated.

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading? If you’re reading the original German, is there anything noteworthy about Döblin’s language?

I’m reading the German original and am constantly thinking that it’s almost impossible to translate this adequately because of the extensive use of Berlin vernacular. But since Döblin uses a collage/montage technique there are other challenges. He uses bits from songs, slogans, poetry, and many other sources. Occasionally he uses them verbatim, quite often though, he changes words. Of course, you can translate them, but they won’t mean the same to a foreign reader. With the changes, they might even be more unrecognizable. I was also wondering, if the translators really caught all the allusions and quotes. They would have to be extremely knowledgeable about German culture and literature

The more descriptive passages, especially those in which the narrator/author are present are very beautiful. There’s a rhythm and sound to his sentences that’s unique. The choice of words is very careful.

What are your first impressions of Berlin and Franz Biberkopf?

Because of the way Döblin chose to tell this story, I think of Franz as a guinea pig or a marionette. I feel like I see the threads, the author is using to make him move. I can’t think of him as a real person at all. Interestingly, I feel very differently about Berlin. The city comes across as more of person than Franz. The city comes to life. One has the feeling of experiencing a particular moment in a very particular place.

The Radetzky March Readalong – Part 3

 

SPOILER WARNING – The answers and questions give away important plot points

There seems to be only one true and honest relationship in this novel—the friendship between district administrator  von Trotta and doctor Skowronnek. Would you agree? What did you think of their relationship?

Until the moment when von Trotta and Skowronnek meet, the coldness of most of the relationships is quite disturbing. The way von Trotta treated his son is one of the examples that struck me. There was no warmth, no real interest, no understanding or empathy. That changes when von Trotta meets Skowronnek. It’s an almost magical encounter and I wasn’t surprised to see Roth compare it to love at first sight in calling it friendship at first sight. For the first time in his life, von Trotta changes and opens up and, also for the first time, begins to show some feelings towards his son. Skowronnek is a true catalyst.

Do you think the novel would have taken another turn, had Carl Joseph opened his father’s letter?

I’d like to think so but it’s not impossible that it wouldn’t because Carl Joseph, at that particular time, was beyond the point of no-return. Things had to get worse before they could get better, as is often the case with alcoholics or gamblers.

What is the significance of the regimental party at Chojnicki’s country house?

It was my favourite chapter by far. It contains everything that’s great about this book – the irony, the absurdity, the evocative descriptions of the weather, that underlines the looming catastrophe. The party shows what the life for the upper classes was all about at the time. And knowing this will be the last time that they will celebrate in this way, is eerie. The last moment of glory of a dying world.

Chapter 21 takes us to the Eastern front.  What do you think about the way Roth depicts the conflict? How do you feel about the manner of Carl Joseph’s death?

In many ways, what Carl Joseph did was more heroic than what his grandfather did. His grandfather didn’t even get the time to think about what he was doing, while Carl Joseph was fully conscious of the risk. Of course, he was also tired of living and the consequences may not have been important for him. And, yes, he didn’t save a life but he was willing to help others.

What struck me the most in this chapter, is that we get a feeling for how vast the empire was. How many people were part of it.

I did add this map before, but I think it’s well worth adding it again here.

Did you find the ending satisfying?

Absolutely. I didn’t expect it to end with Skowronnek and found that very hopeful. He’s the only truly likable character because he has warmth and empathy and doesn’t care about conventions. He’s also capable of true friendship. To end with him, showing us how he moves on, is both hopeful and sad. I’d like to think of him as a man of a new era. A bit like Chojnicki but without being jaded or spoilt through incredible wealth. His relationship to money is very telling too. He doesn’t give because he has too much like Chojnicki but because he wants to help a friend.

The Radetzky March has been described as a nostalgic novel for a lost empire.  Is nostalgic the adjective you’d use?

I didn’t find it nostalgic. The only slightly nostalgic chapter was the party at Chojnicki’s but it’s too full of irony to be truly nostalgic. Possibly the only nostalgic element was the epilogue, in which we see Skowronnek playing chess on his own.

What struck you the most in this novel, what do you like or dislike the most?

I’ve read it before, ages ago, and the one thing I didn’t remember and that struck the most now, was how male-dominated it was. And the way women are portrayed. They are all either dead/dying or unfaithful, sometimes both. If he’d wanted to include more female characters, I think, he would have had to write a much longer novel. All the other novels about the end of an era that come to mind, are larger canvases that include more female characters.

Would you reread The Radetzky March?

Given the state of my piles, I don’t think so but it’s not entirely impossible. It’s such a complex book that would deserve to be reread.

******

I’d like to thank everyone who participated. Lizzy and I truly appreciate it. Thank you all for your enthusiasm and your insighful comments and posts. I’ll try to visit those I’ve missed.

The Radetzky March Readalong – Part 2

 

SPOILER WARNING – The answers and questions give away important plot points

Are there characters you like or dislike particularly so far?

While I find all of the characters very interesting and wonderfully drawn, there isn’t any character I particularly like. I feel sorry for many of them, but I don’t think they are particularly likable, possibly with the exception of Chojnicki. I loved the way he spoke about the Kaiser, calling him by hist first name. Was it out of lack of respect? Possibly, but also, I think because he felt that the end of the monarchy was approaching and, rightly so.

What does the old servant Jacques and his death stand for?

There are so many scenes in this book that signify or announce the end of an era but Jacques also announces the end of the von Trottas. He’s the only one who knew the hero of Solferino and with him, this man who has almost been forgotten, through his own doing, is sinking even further into oblivion. The whole death scene was particularly well done and used to great effect. Like the monarchy, he doesn’t die quickly but seems to go back to new life and then dies anyway. A book that’s so heavily preoccupied with death and dying had to have an extended death scene.

In many ways Chojnicki is the opposite of Jacques. What did you think of him?

I mentioned him earlier as one of the few characters I really liked. A modern man, very rich but not in a greedy kind of way. He’s always willing to share and give his money to those who need it. He seems to mind his own business more than anything else. He is alert and curious, also generous and free of self-importance, a typical trait of many of the other characters.

What do you make of this quote?

“I haven’t forgotten him,” said the lieutenant, “I always thought of that painting. I’m not strong enough for this painting. The dead! I can’t forget the dead! Father, I can’t forget anything. Father!”

I felt sorry for Carl Joseph from the beginning of the book, when his first lover, Frau Slama dies. Death got a hold of him and never let go. Although he thinks he’s found new life, with Frau von Taussig, the reader can sense it will be short-lived.

What do you think of Roth’s style so far?

I think I remembered his style differently. As Andrew said in his post on the first part, it feels much more like a 19th century novel. No modernist approaches. Maybe others feel differently, but I don’t think he’s a great stylist. His strengths are characterisation and descriptions. He’s more interested in psychology than beautiful language or original ways to say things.

Were you surprised to find the last chapter of part 2 told from the point of view of Kaiser Franz Josef? How effective did you find it?

I thought it was a great idea and worked very well. It showed the Kaiser as a human being, something people at the time possibly tended to forget. In people’s views he was almost God-like. The chapter shows how isolating this must have been. Most of the time, he had to play a role. Only when he was alone, at night, could he express his true self.

Do you have favorite quotes? Please share them and tell us why you like them.

I have so many favourite quotes but because I read the book in German, I won’t share them. I’m still not feeling well enough to embark on any translations.

When he meets Frau von Taussig, Carl Josef feels like he’s happy for the first time? Do you think that’s true? How do you think of her and their relationship?

Frau von Taussig is a great character. Silly and touching at the same time. But also selfish and self-involved. The way Roth introduced her, with only a remark at first, at the end of one chapter, told the reader she’s trouble. I don’t think she cares about Carl Joseph. One gets the feeling it could have been any young lieutenant. There’s no attempt to understand or get to know him. And so, in the end, she treats Carl Joseph like every one else does. Just a player in play that has lost its meaning. A bit like the Kaiser. Carl Joseph is as lonely and desperate as before, and possibly, without his knowing, worse off than before he met her.

How do you feel about the descriptions of alcoholism in this section?

It’s a chilling description of alcoholism and feels very realistic. Sadly, Roth knew what he was writing about and the reader can sense that.

The Radetzky March Readalong – Part 1

 

SPOILER WARNING – The answers and questions give away important plot points

 

Welcome to the #germanlitmonth spring readalong of Joseph Roth’s more famous novel, The Radetzky March.  What enticed you to readalong with us?

I’ve read the book ages ago, in school, however, because we started it towards the end of a semester, we never finished it and because we were moving on to other books, I also never finished it for myself. Although more than one book has been spoilt because I read it in the class room, this one wasn’t. I really loved it, just never found the time to get back to it. The longer I waited, the clearer it became, that I couldn’t just read the final chapters but had to start from the beginning.

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading?

I’m reading it in the German original. A paperback edition. Unfortunately it is one of those without any introduction or notes. This is decidedly one of those books where notes would have come in handy.

Is the novel living up to your expectations?

It’s in many ways much better than I remembered it. I don’t think I caught how intertwined the themes of death, dying, and the end of an era were. I also didn’t remember how much it focussed on one person and how male-dominated it was.

How would you comment on the first few sentences? Is this an effective opening? “The Trottas were not an old family.  Their founder had been ennobled following the battle of Solferino.  He was a Slovene. The name of his village – Sipolje – was taken into his title.  Fate had singled him out for a particular deed. He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.” (Translation: Michael Hofmann)

I found this very typical for its time, but a bit clunky for a contemporary reader. It’s vital information, of course. It also works as foreshadowing of many of the themes, especially the last sentence. It’s just not the kind of beginning that invites you with open arms, so to speak.

Roth subscribed to Chekhov’s view that a writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness”.  That doesn’t mean that we as readers need to be the same! How do you feel about the hero of Solferino’s crusade to return to obscurity? What are the ramifications of this for his descendants?

I got where he was coming from. I didn’t think he ever saw himself as particularly heroic and the way what he did was described in the school book made him seem even more heroic. On the other hand, his behaviour is typical of the older Trotta’s. They are such a strict, pedantic, joyless lot. And it seemed like he didn’t feel he was deserving of his title.

Carl Josef von Trotta follows his grandfather into the military.  Is his life there honourable and meaningful? Is his fateful relationship with Dr Demant’s wife innocent?

I was wondering while reading these chapters and came to the conclusion that the relationship possibly was innocent. Roth mentions physical contact when it happens but he doesn’t mention it here. I could be wrong, of course, but it would make Demant’s death even more tragic.

Roth may not judge his characters, but his sights are aimed at other targets: the social order and the military code of honour, for instance.  How does Roth critique these?

I think the duel and subsequent death of two officers shows very well how Roth felt about the code of honour. The whole story is absurd and so is the outcome. It doesn’t even matter, whether or not Trotta and Demant’s wife were having an affair. One has also the feeling Demant doesn’t even do it because of his pride, but because he thinks he has to. I’ve come across other duels in novels and they are always used as a means to show how cruel the code of honour was. But I don’t think I’ve ever come across one with quite that outcome. The double death makes it even more cruel and absurd.

Do you have any further comments on this section?

What struck me the most in this section was Carl Joseph’s reaction to Mme Slama’s death. It’s almost as if it hit his core and he wasn’t the same from then on. He immediately associated her death with the decay of her body. I suspect, although I have no proof whatsoever, that this is rather how Roth felt about death. The images of worms eating decaying bodies is recurring. Obviously, it also echoes the death of the monarchy. As a reaction of such a young man, it seemed extreme, but her death could also have triggered an underlying depression, which became aparent in these morbid thoughts.

 

Peach by Emma Glass – Dylan Thomas Prize 2019 Blog Tour @dylanthomprize

Emma Glass’ Peach is one of the books on this year’s Dylan Thomas Prize Long List. The prize is awarded for the best published literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under. The prize is named after the Swansea-born writer, Dylan Thomas, and celebrates his 39 years of creativity and productivity. I’m very glad I was invited to participate in the blog tour.

When I chose Peach from the longlist, I wasn’t entirely aware of what type of book this would be. I knew it was about a teenage girl who goes to college, has a boyfriend named Green, a best friend, a cat, a baby brother and parents who just seem to have rediscovered sex. And I knew that something horrible, a sexual assault, happens to her. What I didn’t realize was how artful this book would be. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it outside of poetry or flash fiction. The way Emma Glass works with sound, repetitions, alliterations, onomatopoeia is astounding. What is even more astounding is that this book, while experimental to some degree, still is immensely readable. In many ways, the style she uses seems to tell us that the unspeakable cannot be named. It has to be evoked.

Given the topic, the book isn’t for the faint of heart and it had one of those moments I’ve come to dread – cruelty against an animal. (Spoiler – why do most perverted people in books always, sooner or later torture an animal – mostly, like in this case, a cat?)

I’ve seen some critics argue that this book fell flat because it’s surreal and, at the end, Peach seems to disintegrate. I would disagree. It’s a shocking topic, told in quite horrific short chapters, but there are also some playful absurd moments that I found very impressive and convincing. Many authors who write about horrible things, like Kafka, to name one of the most famous, used the absurd to describe what’s too awful to name. And Emma Glass does just that.

To give you an impression of her stellar writing, I’ll leave you with a few quotes. Nothing captures this book as well as quotes.

The first sentences:

Thick stick sticky wet ragged wool winding round the wounds, stitching the sliced skin together as I walk, scraping my mittened hand against the wall. Rough red bricks ripping the wool. Ripping the skin. Rough red skin.

Page 39

My legs feel heavy and I’m dragging my feet. Shovelling snow with my shoes. Leaving lines behind from my lead legs.

Page 72/73

I lie down on the sofa and shut my eyes. My hands fall straight down to my tummy. Strange. How strange it is. Naturally grasping the firm mass doesn’t feel so strange any more. The lump I have been lugging though loathsome heavy hurting full, it feels like me, like part of me. Ingrained. Embedded. I think about cells, multiplying, millions, every second, every millisecond for millions of seconds how big can I get? How big will I be before I burst? Cells linking, holding hands, making chains, chains winding, chains winding around my core. Spores sporing, pouring.

One more element I’d like to mention are the chapter headings which are equally artful and playful. Here are just a few:

Seam Stress

Sun Screen

Forest for Rest

Final Pieces, Final Peace

Emma Glass was born in Swansea. She studied English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Kent, then decided to become a nurse and went back to study Children’s Nursing at Swansea University. She lives and works in London. Peach is her first book.

Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for a review copy

This year’s longlist of 12 books comprises eight novels, two short story collections and two poetry collections:

  • Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Friday Black (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (US) and Riverrun (UK))
  • Michael Donkor, Hold (4th Estate)
  • Clare Fisher, How the Light Gets In (Influx Press)
  • Zoe Gilbert, Folk (Bloomsbury Publishing)
  • Emma Glass, Peach ((Bloomsbury Publishing)
  • Guy Gunaratne, In Our Mad and Furious City (Tinder Press, Headline)
  • Louisa Hall, Trinity (Ecco)
  • Sarah Perry, Melmoth (Serpent’s Tail)
  • Sally Rooney, Normal People (Faber & Faber)
  • Richard Scott, Soho (Faber & Faber)
  • Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, House of Stone (Atlantic Books)
  • Jenny Xie, Eye Level (Graywolf Press)

César Aira – El Tilo – The Lime Tree

Argentinian writer César Aira has been on my radar for a while. I don’t think I have come across any negative reviews of his work so far. On the contrary, most of his readers were more than enthusiastic. Aira is known to be one of the most prolific writers. To this day, he’s written over one hundred books. Obviously, his books are mostly on the short side, nonetheless, it’s an impressive number. It’s also a number that makes it difficult for first time readers to choose a book. Since I’d read a few rave reviews of The Lime Tree, I decided to start with that.

The Lime Tree tells a fictional childhood memoir, set right after the fall of Peronism. The narrator is an older man, looking back on his childhood, exploring the role of History on his personal history. The distinction between History with a capital H and history is a major theme of this novel. The way families, in this case, poor Argentinian families are influenced by the History of the country, its politics, is central. For someone who knows little about Latin American – or Argentinian history – it was very interesting. The book explained very well how someone like Perón could be so popular with the working classes who were hoping for social mobility.

Perón and the fall of Perón, were important for the narrator’s family and therefore also for the narrator himself. But there were other things that would play a role. His father, a very good-looking man, was ‘black’, probably of Indian descent, while his mother is described as dwarf-like and very ugly. His father, an ardent Peronist, suffered from his nerves, after the end of Peronism, and hardly spoke while his mother was a loud, chatty woman.

This duality might help to explain his marriage. My mother was white; she came from a respectable, middle-class family, and if she had acquiesced to an alliance with the ‘black’ populace, it was because her physical deformity made it impossible for her to marry at her own level. The alternative would have been to remain unmarried, and as far back as I can remember, she was always expressing her horror at the condition of ‘spinster’.

For the reader, many of the episodes in the novel are amusing, but when you look at them closely, you notice how much pain and tragedy these parents experienced.

Some readers have complained that Aria doesn’t write chronological tales and that it can be quite challenging to read him. I didn’t mind this at all. Reading The Lime Tree was like listening to the monologue of an older relative who is reminiscing, telling stories of his life, jumping from one topic to the next but always picking up the lost thread again. As with many elements of this book, there’s an echo of this reading experience in the text.

Back then, people had so much time, they would tolerate the craziest monologues. I can’t have been the only one who listened to them with pleasure.

It was fascinating to learn more about a place, Colonel Pringles, in Argentina, during a specific period, the 50s. I found Aria’s approach to telling a story interesting because it mirrored his topic – History and personal history and the way they influence each other. And there are many wonderful, colourful scenes and story elements that I liked a lot, like the description of the way they lived – in one room of an abandoned inn. I would actually love to see this made into a movie.

Will I read more of Aira? It’s possible, but I don’t think I would read him in English again. I just felt very far from the original text. That doesn’t mean the translation isn’t good. I’m sure it is. I just wanted to hear the original cadence. I noticed that there’s a new collection in Spanish due to come out in May – here. It contains ten of his short books. Maybe I’ll pick it up.