Lion Feuchtwanger: The Oppermanns – Die Geschwister Oppermann (1933) Literature and War Readalong November 2017

When Lion Feuchtwanger left Germany in 1933 for a trip to the UK and the US, he didn’t think that he would never return to his home country. While abroad, he said to people that “Hitler is over”. When Hitler then became Chancellor – Reichskanzler – in 1933, Feuchtwanger’s opinion changed considerably. “Hitler means war” he said to a journalist, a statement that was widely quoted in the American press. Soon after the Reichstags fire – Reichstagsbrand – Feuchtwanger’s house was searched, his possessions destroyed or confiscated. He knew he could never go back. The events shocked him, but what shocked him even more was that he, like so many other Jews and other Germans, had believed for so long that anything this barbarous would never be possible in the country of Goethe and Schiller. The realization of how wrong he was led him to write The Oppermanns, a book in which we find a lot of his own experience. What struck me, while reading this, was how prescient it seemed. I rechecked my edition twice, to see whether it was really published in 1933. Yet, Feuchtwanger was very had on himself for not having seen the whole thing coming sooner. I found that so interesting. I think we are so focused on the war that we tend to forget that Hitler’s ascent, his totalitarian regime, the horrors against the Jews, the communists and the intellectuals started so much earlier. Long before the war.

The Oppermanns tells the story of a rich Jewish family. There are three brothers and a sister. Martin is the head of the family company, a furniture house, Gustav who works with his brother, is also a publicist and does research on Lessing. Edgar, is a brilliant surgeon. The sister, Klara, stays in the background. It’s her American husband, Jacques Lavendel, who is another major character. Three of the Oppermanns have children. Martin’s son Berthold, Edgars’ daughter Ruth, and Klara’s son Heinrich.

There are many minor characters that are just as important. Teachers at Berthold’s and Heinrich’s school, people who work for the Oppermann’s in their furniture store and many more.

The story starts in 1932 with Gustav’s 50th birthday. It should have been a day of triumph but their company is in danger and this overshadows Gustav’s big day. Until now, Gustav wasn’t a political man. He was more interested in Germany’s culture, its literature and, like many, he believed that someone who produced something as badly written as Mein Kampf couldn’t be taken seriously. Surely, the Germans would see through this and shake it off. His brothers Martin and Edgar were slightly more aware of what was going on. The Nazi’s were gaining ground and Jewish businesses and Jewish people were more and more threatened. In order to save the furniture business, Martin suggests to collaborate with an Aryan business partner. That someone this rooted in tradition and family values would go this way, wakes up Gustav.

Edgar on his side is threatened to leave his hospital. Although he has invented a famous cure, the Nazis’ pretend he’s killing his Aryan patients.

The saddest stories focus on Berthold, whose new teacher is a fanatic Nazi and determined to humiliate Berthold, and the story of one of the Oppermanns’ employees who, like so many, is arrested and tortured.

Towards the end of the novel, after Hitler has become Chancellor, those Oppermanns, who survived, flee the country.

An omniscient narrator tells us the many stories, switching back and forth between the characters. A bit like in Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française, we get the feeling of being there, of reading a documentary, but the result is a more traditional novel with a plot.

Feuchtwanger deplored later that he wrote this without taking a step back. He felt this documentary aspect was a weakness of the novel. I don’t agree with him. I think this is exactly the reason why this book is so outstanding. It’s the first novel in which the Nazis and their ascent is criticized, in which the manipulations, the lies, the atrocities, the confiscations, the torture, the concentration camps are described in detail.

What I found particularly fascinating is how Feuchtwanger explores the different reactions to the Nazi’s rise. Many, especially cultured people, just couldn’t believe that someone who wrote a book that was as badly written as Mein Kampf could become Chancellor. Others just didn’t take the movement seriously because they thought they wouldn’t get in the line of fire, either because they were from old, rich and influential families or because they thought they were not important enough. Others, especially religious Jews, were planning on leaving for Palestine. I often wondered why not more left but I had no clue that not everyone was allowed in. Only those who could pay a certain amount, which wasn’t possible for everyone.

Another interesting aspect is the difference between race and religion. Reading this book, one becomes fully ware, that it was never really about religion but about race. Most of the characters in this book, probably like Feuchtwanger himself, were not religious. And they certainly didn’t see themselves as belonging to another race. They felt they were Germans just like anyone else. Germans first and then Jewish. Not the other way around. In a way, you could say that this self-image clouded their perception. They didn’t identify with being Jewish and therefore didn’t feel threatened.

At the beginning of this post, I wrote how prescient this book felt. But that is the perception of someone who reads this now and the longer I think about it, the more I feel, Feuchtwanger wasn’t so much prescient as just aware. Reading this, I really wonder why not more people saw it coming.

The Oppermanns is a very readable, entertaining book. The characterisations are wonderful. Feuchtwanger brings even minor characters to life and makes the reader care for them. The strength of the book however lies in its immediacy and documentary character. Reading it, one feels transported in time. And, for the first time, I understood, not only how early it all began, but why people didn’t or couldn’t react the way they should have. Some embraced Nazism, but many just couldn’t believe it. Not even when they saw or heard about the atrocities. Only when they or their loved ones experienced them first-hand did it fully sink in.

If you’re interested in the rise of Nazism or like a well-told family story, then you shouldn’t miss this. It’s outstanding.

Other reviews

TJ (My Book Strings)

Winner Announcement – German Literature Giveaway – Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig

The following two of my readers have each won a copy of Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant.

TJ (My Bookstrings) and

Brian from Brian’s Babbling Books.

Congratulations, TJ and Brian. I’m looking forward to your thoughts on the book.

Please send me your addresses via beautyisasleepingcat at gmail dot com or via Twitter DM.

Two Lines Press, a program of the Center for the Art of Translation, is generously sponsoring this giveaway.

German Literature Giveaway – Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig

Today I have a special treat for fans of W.G Sebald, László Krasznahorkai, and the movies of Andrei Tarkovsky. Two Lines Press, a program of the Center for the Art of Translation, is generously sponsoring a giveaway of two copies of Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant.

Hilbig was born in East Germany but emigrated to West Germany in 1985. He received all of Germany’s major literary prizes.

I was familiar with his name but had never picked up any of his books. As soon as I was contacted by Two Lines Press, I browsed a few of his books and was stunned. The imagery reminded me so much of a Tarkovsky movie. And Tarkovsky is one of my favourite film directors. Abandoned houses, desolate landscapes, solitary people. I was captivated.

If you’d like to read a great review of the book here’s a post by roughghosts and his review in The Quarterly Conversation.

Here’s what you can find on the website of the Center for the Art of Translation:

“[Wolfgang Hilbig] evokes the luminous prose of W. G. Sebald.” — The New York Times

What falsehoods do we believe as children? And what happens when we realize they are lies—possibly heinous ones? In Old Rendering Plant Wolfgang Hilbig turns his febrile, hypnotic prose to the intersection of identity, language, and history’s darkest chapters, immersing readers in the odors and oozings of a butchery that has for years dumped biological waste into a river. It starts when a young boy becomes obsessed with an empty and decayed coal plant, coming to believe that it is tied to mysterious disappearances throughout the countryside. But as a young man, with the building now turned into an abattoir processing dead animals, he revisits this place and his memories of it, realizing just how much he has missed. Plumbing memory’s mysteries while evoking historic horrors, Hilbig gives us a gothic testament for the silenced and the speechless. With a tone worthy of Poe and a syntax descended from Joyce, this suggestive, menacing tale refracts the lost innocence of youth through the heavy burdens of maturity.

PRAISE

“Wolfgang Hilbig is an artist of immense stature.” — László Krasznahorkai, winner of the Man Booker International Prize and author of Satantango and Seiobo There Below

“Out of the ugliness of history and the wasted landscape of his home, he has created stories of disconsolate beauty.” — The Wall Street Journal

“Beneath Hilbig’s layers of imagistic prose, deep inside the tormented psyche of his narrator, a historical beast waits to be roused.” — Electric Literature“

“[Hilbig writes as] Edgar Allan Poe could have written if he had been born in Communist East Germany.” — Los Angeles Review of Books

*******

If you would like to win a copy of Hilbig’s novella, leave a comment, telling me why you’d like to read it.

The giveaway is US/Canada only. The winners will be announced on Wednesday November 22 2017, around 18:00 Central European time.

*******

The Giveaway is now Closed.

The Nameless Day – Der namenlose Tag by Friedrich Ani (2015) Jakob Franck Series I

Last May I read my first Friedrich Ani and was extremely impressed (here’s the review). I knew I would read another one of his novels before long. This time I chose the first in the Jakob Franck series, The Nameless DayDer namenlose Tag. The novel was published in Germany in 2015. The English translation will be published by Seagull Books next month. This is Ani’s fourth series. He also writes standalone novels.

Jakob Franck has been retired for two months. He’s lonely and can’t shake off the dead. They haunt and visit him. When he was still working, Franck used to be the bringer of bad news. Most other police men hated nothing more than telling people that a loved one had died in an accident or been murdered. Ani never thought about it. He did it and he was good at it. He knew how to calm people, knew how to say the right words or was just there for them without saying much. In one case, the suicide of a seventeen-year-old girl, he even held the dead girl’s mother for over seven hours without speaking.

Holding the relative of a dead person for seven hours was unusual, even for Jakob Franck, and so, even twenty years later, he has never forgotten the death of Esther Winther. Still, he’s surprised when the father of the dead girl contacts him. Esther had been found hanging from the branches of a tree. Why the secretive teenager had killed herself had never been found out. There were many rumours. Rumours of an affair with an older man, rumours of abuse, rumours of depression. The father never believed it was a suicide. He always suspected foul play. The mother, the woman Franck had held, killed herself exactly one year later.

Winther knows that Franck wasn’t the investigator at the time and he also knows that he isn’t working anymore, but because he knows that he’s a compassionate man, he hopes he’ll help him find out the truth, track down the murderer.

Franck embarks on a journey of darkness and loneliness. He goes through case files, interviews people, friends and relatives, travels from Munich to Berlin and finally applies his own special method of “Gedankenfühligleit” – which can best be described as some sort of sixth sense analysis. What he uncovers is a web of dark secrets and many lonely people who would do anything for attention and possibly love. Many of the people he meets remind Franck of his own loneliness and trigger profound feelings of empathy and compassion. The ending is surprising.

I liked this novel very much. Ani is the kind of writer even people who don’t normally read crime novels appreciate. His writing and his characters are unusual. He always tries to say things in a fresh, original way. Occasionally that goes wrong. There are a few wonky metaphors and expressions that were a bit odd, but at least the writing’s never tired, always fresh.

While I liked this book, I still found it could have benefitted from a few cuts and more editing. There are some repetitions. And while I love ghost stories, I didn’t feel like it was necessary or brought anything to the story that Franck talks to ghosts of dead people and sees them in his living room. There are only a few instances of those and they are meant to underline how emotional and empathic he is, nonetheless, the book would have been stronger without these element.

The biggest strength of the novel is the exploration of its main theme. There is more than one suicide or suspected suicide in this book, and so it’s fair to say, that suicide is the main theme of the novel. The book shows how devastating it is to lose someone this way, how hard it is to move on, especially when the reasons aren’t clear. And also how cruel it is when someone goes without forewarning. Ani describes both sides well— the side of the person who finally sees no other way and the side of those left behind.

If you like literary crime that uses innovative language, crime that explores the darker aspects of the human condition – suicide, loneliness, guilt, family secrets, resentment, hate -,  crime that’s very character-driven, then you’ll like Ani’s book.

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (2016)

Stories have endings; that’s why we tell them, for reassurance that there is meaning in our lives. But like a diagnosis, a story can become a prison, a straight road mapped out by the people who went before. Stories are not the truth.

Rave reviews of Sarah Moss’ The Tidal Zone caught my attention and I decided I had to read it. I’ve read two of her earlier novels, Cold Earth, a stunning ghost story, and Bodies of Light, a mesmerizing historical novel. I enjoyed them very much and was pretty certain I would love The Tidal Zone as well. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I liked it but didn’t love it. I’m not exactly sure, why I didn’t warm to this ambitious book. It offers so much. Meditations on life and death, gender, politics, family life, illness, the NHS . . . I could go on.

It’s the story of a family that almost unravels when the heart of the 15-year-old daughter, Miriam, stops. Miriam survives the episode but has to stay at the hospital for a long time as it’s not clear what brought on this reaction. She seems to suffer from some type of allergy. Adam, a stay-at-home dad, spends most of his time at her side, only occasionally replaced by his overworked wife, a doctor, who works for the NHS.

Many reviewers called this a “state of the nation” novel and that’s accurate. It definitely looks at the way people live in Britain now. Or rather, the way middle-class, white people live in England. Adam’s a bit of a failed academic and is working on writing something about the Coventry cathedral. The book alternates between reflections on the cathedral, which was, along with most of the city, destroyed during WWII. Like Miriam’s incident, the stories that are told in these parts are about human frailty and the unpredictability of life. But they also help to illustrate the family history as Adam’s Jewish dad was born in the US. The family fled Europe during the war.

Fiction is the enemy of history. Fiction makes us believe in structure, in beginnings and middles and endings, in tragedy and comedy. There is neither tragedy nor comedy in war, only disorder and harm.

While I didn’t warm to this book, I enjoyed many of its parts. This is a family of intellectuals who seem to love a good argument. The descriptions of family life are often hilarious. Miriam’s a great, great character.

Here’s  her answer to her dad’s question whether she’ll go with him to Coventry cathedral:

It’ll take more than coloured glass and old music to make me sign up to homophobia, misogyny and the grandfather of all patriarchal institutions.

She’s bright, very political and engaged. She will never let anyone get away with bullshit. It was so refreshing to read their repartees.

She had joined Amnesty International and Greenpeace and the Green Party. She said patriarchy and hegemony and neo-liberalism, several times a day. She put streaks of blue in her hair and enjoyed baiting her teachers by wearing mascara: but Miss, you’re wearing makeup. But Sir, aren’t you just inducting us into a world more interested in policing women’s sexuality than giving us knowledge?

Obviously, this isn’t your every day family as Adam’s a stay-at-home dad. While it does sound like hard work at times and he makes huge efforts to ensure that the family always has clean clothes, nourishing, healthy meals and that the house is clean and tidy, we never hear it mentioned that he struggles. I found that interesting because I can’t remember every reading a novel about a stay-at-home mum who also was an academic and tried to get work done and it sounded so harmonious. I wonder if that was a conscious choice and if so, why. I remember that the mothers in Sarah Moss’ earlier books struggled quite a bit with motherhood.

As you see, there’s a lot to love here. So why didn’t I warm to this? The book had the misfortune of reminding me of Ian McEwan’s Saturday. None of the characters is even remotely as obnoxious as those in Saturday, still, there’s a similarity. Probably because the characters both occupy the same social territory. Or maybe I didn’t warm to this because Sarah Moss tried hard to show us another side of her talent. While the other novels I read were very atmospheric and spoke to the senses, this one speaks purely to the mind and – depending on the reader – to the emotions. Since I had no emotional reaction to this, it spoke only to my mind, which wasn’t enough for me to love it.

Claire Fuller: Swimming Lessons (2017)

Swimming Lessons is English author Claire Fuller’s second novel. After coming across more than one raving review by book bloggers and critics, I decided I had to read it.

Flora and Nan’s mother has disappeared twelve years ago. One day, their father, Gil Coleman, thinks he’s seen her and while trying to get a better look accidentally falls from a seafront. Nan, the older sister, a nurse, calls Flora and begs her to come home and help her look after their dad.

Unlike Gil and Nan, Flora doesn’t believe that her mother has drowned. She thinks that she simply chose to leave and might still return one day.

After the first chapter in which Flora travels to her childhood home, a swimming pavilion, the narrative splits. The parts in the present are told from Flora’s POV, the parts in the past are written in the form of letters Ingrid writes to Gil before she disappears. Ingrid hides the letters in the pages of Gil’s books. Gil Coleman, who is the famous author of a scandalous book, has an interesting hobby. He collects old books. Not because of the books but because of the things he finds in them— the notes and drawings of their readers. In one of these he finds a letter from his missing wife. Ingrid’s letters unfold their complex, difficult, and destructive marriage.

Most readers seem to have liked the marriage story told by Ingrid in the letters. While I found some elements interesting, overall, the parts set in the present, spoke to me much more.  The most interesting element of Ingrid’s story is her feelings for her children. She doesn’t relate to her two daughters. The first one, Nan, was an accident and somehow Ingrid always saw her as an independent being. Flora, the third, is very much Gil’s daughter. I guess that’s why the parts in the present are told from her and not from Nan’s point of view. She adores and idolizes her father. Finding out the truth about her parent’s marriage is more of a surprise and a shock to her than it is to the reader. One of the tragedies of Ingrid’s life is that the child she relates to the most was stillborn. When she’s pregnant with him, she already knows that Gil is unfaithful and she’s very lonely. She projects so much on this child and is sure he will become her companion. When he dies, she feels like she’s lost her only true child and her chance at happiness and companionship. I found this extremely sad and problematic for everyone involved. For Ingrid, because she lost that baby and for her two girls because they mean less to their mother than a child who didn’t even live.

The parts told by Flora were those I could relate to the most. They show how difficult it is to live with a family secret and what a challenge it can be, coming from a dysfunctional family, to have healthy relationships.

One of the main themes of the novel is ambiguous loss. There’s a story one character tells the others, in which a child gets lost and it mirrors Ingrid’s story. The loss is magnified because they never get closure. It’s possible she’s dead but it’s just as possible, she left them. Gil and Nan, both believe she’s dead and have moved on, but Flora, for the longest time, cannot move on as she’s still hoping her mother’s out there somewhere.

Whole books have been written about ambiguous loss. There are other forms of ambiguous loss, not only those, in which the body of the disappeared was never found but also those in which the mind has gone but the body’s still around, like in the case of dementia or Alzheimer patients. I haven’t experienced anything like this but I always thought it must be devastating. It’s an important topic and I loved how subtly it was explored in this novel.

This is one of those books I enjoyed far less while reading it than after finishing it. I’m not always keen on split narratives. I often prefer one narrator/POV and going back and forth between two or more can get on my nerves. But when a book is really good, it can come together as whole, once we finish reading. And that was the case here. The longer I thought about it, the more I liked it. I found the characters, especially quirky Flora, interesting and relatable and I absolutely loved the sense of place. The descriptions of the swimming pavilion and the surrounding landscape of marshes and ponds, is what held the book together. The imagery was so strong that I can still picture the place with great detail. The ending was unexpected and powerful.

If you like stories of dysfunctional families and family secrets, books with a strong sense of place, and fully rounded, complex characters, you might enjoy this subtle, haunting story that lingers in the mind long after the book is finished.

Frédéric Dard: C’est toi le venin (You’re the Poison) (1957)

I have no idea why I haven’t read any Frédéric Dard novels so far. Possibly, because in France his standalone novels are a bit overshadowed by his San-Antonio series, which never tempted me. Or because he was so prolific that I had no clue where to start. He wrote at least 280 novels, twenty plays, and sixteen adaptations for the cinema. There was one novel, however, I always meant to read because it has been made into a movie (Toi, le venin – Night is Not For Sleep aka Blonde in a White Car), of which my dad was very fond. He even had a single of the film music. That’s why I chose this book over all the many others that sounded just as good and also over all those already translated into English.

Ces’t toi le venin, which I would translate as “You’re the poison” tells the story of Victor Menda. Victor Menda, a young man of twenty-eight years, is down on his luck. He has no job, no money, no relatives, no friends and serious dept at the casino. The story’s set on the Côte d’Azur and at the beginning we see Menda walk along the sea, contemplating suicide. He eventually decides against this drastic measure and takes a walk along the water. Suddenly a car stops. A woman’s at the steering wheel and demands that he join her. Menda does as he’s told. He’s intrigued and wants to see the woman’s face but a scarf hides it. She finally stops again and wants to have sex with him. Although he finds this openly demanding behaviour a tad intimidating and even revolting, he still accepts. When she finally boots him out again, there’s nothing else he can do but write down her number plate.

Don’t worry, I haven’t given away too much of the plot, as what I just summarized doesn’t take up more than a few pages. The story as such begins when Menda finds the owner of the car. The car belongs to Hélène, the older of two very beautiful and rich sisters who own a huge villa near Nice. The younger sister, Ève, sits in a wheelchair since the age of thirteen. The young girl develops a massive crush on Menda and so the older one begs him to stay with them. Unfortunately, Menda falls in love with the older one.

It soon becomes obvious that things are not as they should. There’s someone using the car at night but it doesn’t seem to be Hélène. Other strange things happen, which alert Menda.

The atmosphere and the mood in the novel get darker and darker. At first Menda thinks, he’s struck gold, but soon he can’t shake off the feeling of being trapped and used. Someone is playing cat and mouse with the people living at the villa. Is it one of them or someone from outside?

I absolutely loved this novel. Some of it is predictable but there are still enough surprising twists and the end is chilling.

Like Simenon, Dard relies heavily on dialogue. There are just a few descriptions here and there to create a mood and atmosphere. That’s why reading the book feels a lot like watching a movie. It has immediacy and a pretty brisk pace.

I’m a sucker for books set on the Côte d’Azur, but even if Dard had chosen another setting, I would have enjoyed this book a lot.

I hope to watch the movie soon, until then, I’ll listen to the score. It’s captures the mood of the novel perfectly.

While C’est toi le venin hasn’t been translated yet, some of Dard’s other novels have been published by Pushkin Press in their Vertigo series.