Literature and War Readalong March 2017: Closely Observed Trains – Ostře sledované vlak by Bohumil Hrabal

closely-observed-trains

Bohumil Hrabal, who is said to be the most important Czech writer of the 20th century, was born in 1914 in the city of Brno, then still part of Austria Hungary. He died in 1997 under somewhat mysterious circumstances. He fell from a window, feeding pigeons. Because he mentions suicide in several of his books, many believe he jumped deliberately.

Closely Observed Trains is possibly his most famous novel. It’s very short, just under 100 pages. It has been made into a movie.

Hrabal is famous for his use of very long sentences and expressive style.

Here are the first sentences:

By this year, the year “forty-five”, the Germans had already lost command of the air-space over our little town. Over the whole region, in fact, and for that matter, the whole country, the dive-bombers were disrupting communications to such an extent that the morning trains ran at noon, the noon trains in the evening, and the evening trains in the night, so that now and then it might happen that an afternoon train came in punctual to the minute, according to the time-table, but only because it was the morning passenger train running four hours late.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

March, Friday 31

Closely Observed Trains – Ostře sledované vlaky by Bohumil Hrabal, 96 pages, Czech Republic 1965, WWII

For gauche young apprentice Milos Hrma, life at the small but strategic railway station in Bohemia in 1945 is full of complex preoccupations. There is the exacting business of dispatching German troop trains to and from the toppling Eastern front; the problem of ridding himself of his burdensome innocence; and the awesome scandal of Dispatcher Hubicka’s gross misuse of the station’s official stamps upon the telegraphist’s anatomy. Beside these, Milos’s part in the plan for the ammunition train seems a simple affair.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 31 March 2017.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Sylvie Germain: Magnus (2005) Literature and War Readalong February 2017

magnusmagnus-edition-francaise

Sylvie Germain is an author I’ve meant to read for ages. I own half a dozen of her books, but it needed the nudge of my readalong to finally get to her. I’m certainly glad I chose Magnus because I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like this. It’s unique in its approach, structure, and complexity.

The prologue or “Ouverture” tells us that the book explores a man’s life. The life of a man with a faulty memory, a memory that has been fed wrong information and is full of gaps and holes. The narrator muses that no life is ever as chronological as we think it is and that all memory and stories are filled with holes and gaps. Because of this logic, the book isn’t divided into chapters but into numbered sections called “fragments”, which alternate with other sections called “Notes”, “Echoes”, “Sequences”. These sections add depth, give background information. They are accompanied by quotes from books and short biographies of real people like Dieter Bonhoeffer.

This might sound like it was a disjointed book but it wasn’t. It felt very organic and dynamic, like watching a puzzle take form. Most fragments were numbered chronologically, some earlier fragments however came later. This mirrored the protagonists way of remembering and let the reader take part in the experience of discovery.

The beginning of the book is set in Germany, during WWII. A little boy called Franz-Georg comes out of a severe illness that has erased the memory of his earlier life. His mother fills the gaps with stories. He cannot make sense of most of what happens around him or of the roles his parents play. He only knows his father is a famous doctor and that when the war ends, they have to flee. Since not only his memory but his consciousness seem to have been wiped out, he knows nothing of the atrocities that took place in Germany and, unlike the reader, never suspects that his father was a doctor in a concentration camp.

Like so many Nazis, his father flees to South America where he dies in an accident. His mother, who doesn’t want to live anymore, sends her son to her brother who lives in London. The two siblings were on opposing political sides before and during the war. Lothar, Franz’s uncle, fought with the resistance with the famous pastor Dieter Bonhoeffer.

By the time Franz comes to London, he knows what happened in Germany and what role his parents played. How do you live with this kind of truth? Franz is almost crushed by it but there are other things that make him restless, give him a feeling of not belonging.

The book follows him to South America where he retraces his dad’s journey. Exposed to the sun and extreme emotions he has a breakdown and fragments from his early childhood emerge and he finds out the truth about his so-called illness. I didn’t see this twist coming and it hit me with full force. In this early fragment we are with the child during the bombing of Hamburg and witness a horrific tragedy. I don’t think I’ve ever come across any scene that captures the horror of being bombed so vividly. Nor have I literally felt the gaps of a narrative closing like this. Because a lot of what we read before tells us just as much as Franz knows, we’re stunned when his memory returns and the gaps are filled.

Magnus is the story of a life but it’s also a meditation on memory, loss, and guilt and how we handle them. Just like our own minds add bits and pieces, memories, information and anecdotes, the book adds elements from various sources. There’s a richness of details and information here that function like small doors that one can enter to find out more. You could read it without looking up anything, or you can follow the many leads Sylvie Germain has added. It’s very much Sylvie Germain’s book but enriched by the many quotes taken from other novels (Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo), nonfiction on war (Sebald On the Natural History of Destruction), plays (Shakespeare’s King Lear) and other sources.

The book also explores how postwar society dealt with Nazis. Many escaped and were never found, but some, like Eichmann, were brought to justice long after the war.

Dieter Bonhoeffer and his resistance group serve as a counterbalance to the stories of war criminals. I was familiar with his name but I didn’t know anything about his life. I will be reading more of and about him soon.

Sylvie Germain’s writing is at times almost scientific, then again it’s lyrical but it’s never warm. We’re always held at arm’s length, never get close to Franz.

Later in the book, when Franz has remembered what happened before the so-called illness, he takes the name Magnus. Magnus is the name of his teddy bear, who has been with him all of his life. The use of this bear is another arresting element of the book. He too, undergoes changes, not only physically but his meaning changes too. He’s a sort of guide for Magnus because as long as he hasn’t solved the meaning of certain elements – the name that sounds nordic, a ear that has burn marks – Magnus, the man, still doesn’t own his story. It’s no surprise then, that Fragment 1, which comes in the middle of the book, reveals the bear’s secret.

I’m afraid, I could only scrape the surface of this beautiful and complex novel. I’d say it’s one of the best books on war and memory and the importance to remember our own story and the history of our society. For such a sophisticated novel, Magnus is surprisingly captivating and suspenseful. There are two powerful twists that I didn’t see coming. Truly a tour de force.

Other Review

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

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Magnus is the second book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next book is the Czech WWII novel Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal. Discussion starts on Friday 31 March, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.

Literature and War Readalong February 28 2017: Magnus by Sylvie Germain

magnus

Sylvie Germain is a highly acclaimed French author of fiction and nonfiction. She earned a PhD in philosophy and studied with the famous French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Most of her novels have won multiple prizes. The most famous ones are Le livre des nuitsThe Book of Nights, Nuit d’ambreNight of Amber, Jours de colèreDays of Anger and Magnus. 

 

Here are the first sentences of Magnus:

Prologue

A meteorite explosion may yield a few small secrets about the origin of the universe. From a fragment of bone we can deduce the structure and appearance of a prehistoric animal; from a vegetal fossil, the presence long ago in a now desert region of luxuriant flora. Infinitesimal and enduring a plethora of traces survive time out of mind.

A scrap of papyrus or a shard of pottery can take us back to a civilisation that disappeared thousands of years ago. The root of a word can illuminate for us a constellation of derivations and meanings. Remains, pit-stones always retain an indestructible kernel of vitality.

In every instance, imagination and intuition are needed to help interpret the enigmas.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Magnus by Sylvie Germain, 190 pages, France 2005, WWII

Magnus is a deeply moving and enigmatic novel about the Holocaust and its ramifications. It is Sylvie Germain’s most commercially successful novel in France. It was awarded The Goncourt Lyceen Prize. Magnus’s story emerges in fragments, with the elements of his past appearing in a different light as he grows older. He discovers the voices of the deceased do not fall silent. He learns to listen to them and becomes attuned to the echoes of memory.

 

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The discussion starts on Tuesday, 28 February 2017.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

N. Scott Momaday: House Made of Dawn (1968) Literature and War Readalong January 2017

house-made-of-dawn

This is going to be a pretty short post. I finished the book but I didn’t get along with it. It had its moments but overall it was frustrating to read.

Published in 1968, House Made of Dawn was N. Scott Momaday’s first novel. It won the Pulitzer Prize. Critics say it’s his most inaccessible novel. Since it’s the first book, I’ve read by him, I can’t say whether the later novels are more accessible or not, I can just confirm that this one is not. At first the writing reminded me of the more challenging Toni Morrison novels I’ve read (Jazz came to mind), but while I could always make sense of her books, this one lost me. Don’t get me wrong, it has beautiful moments and chapters but it goes back and forth in the chronology, uses stream-of-consciousness, fragments, bits from dreams, mythology. The worst was that I wasn’t always sure whose stream-of consciousness I was reading. And I was never sure why he chose the different approaches. At times, it felt like some of the chapters were creative writing exercises. The chapter that was the most readable read like a short story. It comes towards the end and it helped me make sense of what came before. It’s very powerful and the writing is beautiful. The biggest problem I had is that there is no real story. We just follow the protagonist, Abel, stumble from one episode to the next.

Like Abel, the main protagonist, Momaday grew up on different reservations. What Momaday manages to convey is the confusion. The culture Abel grows up in, isn’t intact. Some of it is part of his heritage but a lot is part of other Native American heritages. Then he joins up and fights during WWII. When he comes back, like his mother and brother, he starts to drink. He kills a man, is sent to prison, comes back and drinks again and gets into fights.

We’re held at arm’s length the whole time, never get a good feeling for Abel’s’ emotions.

The beginning was hard to read because there are descriptions of hunting that made me sick. One in particular, in which Abel captures an eagle.

I’m also not entirely sure, this was a good choice for the readalong. Yes, Abel seems to suffer from PTSD, but he suffers from a lot of other things too. He might not have been better off if he hadn’t joined up.

I’m sorry for this lousy review. I hope someone else has read along and enjoyed it more. I’m sure, if I wanted to spend a couple of days doing research, read secondary literature, then I would find more to like but I’m not really in the mood for that.

 

Other Review

TJ@My Book Strings

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House Made of Dawn is the first book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next book is the French WWII novel Magnus by Sylvie Germain. Discussion starts on Tuesday 28 February, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.

Literature and War Readalong January 2017: House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday

house-made-of-dawn

The Pulitzer Prize winner of 1966, House Made of Dawn by Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday, is the first title of the Literature and War Readalong 2017. It’s the first novel by an Native American or American Indian writer (I’m not sure which is the preferred name) I’ve included in the readalong. We’ll be reading another one later this year, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.

N. Scott Momaday is a writer, poet and essayist. House Made of Dawn is considered to be the first novel of the Native American Renaissance and because it won the Pulitzer Prize it is also the first novel of a Native American that made it into the mainstream.

Here are the first sentences of House Made of Dawn:

Dypaloh. There was a house made of dawn. It was made of pollen and of rain, and the land was very old and everlasting. There were many colors on the hills, and the plain was bright with different-colored clays and sands. Red and blue and spotted horses grazed in the plain, and there was a dark wilderness on the mountains beyond. The land was still and strong. It was beautiful all around.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday, 208 pages, US 1966, WWII

The magnificent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of a stranger in his native land

A young Native American, Abel has come home from a foreign war to find himself caught between two worlds. The first is the world of his father’s, wedding him to the rhythm of the seasons, the harsh beauty of the land, and the ancient rites and traditions of his people. But the other world — modern, industrial America — pulls at Abel, demanding his loyalty, claiming his soul, goading him into a destructive, compulsive cycle of dissipation and disgust. And the young man, torn in two, descends into hell.

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The discussion starts on Tuesday, 31 January 2017.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Final Thoughts on German Literature Month 2016

german-literature-month-vi

I know that some of you, including my co-host, are extending German Literature Month through December. I am not keen on extending events, so this is my goodbye to GLM.

A usual, the event was a success. There have been 119 reviews so far. Normally I try to read as many reviews as possible but November was too hectic and upsetting to do so. I still hope to visit a few of you. In any case, thank you so much for participating.

I’ve done quite well with my reading plans this year, but I haven’t reviewed everything I’ve read. Tony wrote about Judith Herrmann’s collection Lettipark here. I felt pretty much the same about the book, so I skipped the review. I’ll return to some stories, but overall it left me rather cold.

I never got to reading the fantasy novel I intended to read nor another short story collection but that’s OK. I’m especially glad I read Walter Kempowski and Uwe Timm.

I loved Capus’ novel when I read it but it’s already fading. Not the best sign. I enjoyed returning to Ursula P. Archer aka Ursula Poznanski and will read more of her crime and YA novels.

Thank you again for participating.

 

Walter Kempowski: All for Nothing – Alles umsonst (2006) Literature and War Readalong November 2016

alles-umsonstAll For Nothing

Until not too long ago, even Germans thought it was in bad taste to write about German suffering during WWII. The feeling of guilt ran too deep. I still remember the discussion when the movie Anonyma came out in 2008. It’s based on the diary of a German woman who was in Berlin when the Russian army arrived. She was one of 2,000,000 German women who were raped many times by the Russian troops. We may look at the war any which way we want, there’s no denying that the Germans suffered too. We just have to think of the bombing of Dresden, the mass rapes of German women by Russian troops and – of course – the huge number of people who were forced to flee from the East towards the West, when the war was lost. Many of these Germans would never be able to return because the place they came from wouldn’t be part of Germany anymore.

This may seem a lengthy introduction but it’s essential to understand not only the importance but the scope of Walter Kempowskis’ powerful and chilling novel All For Nothing – Alles umsonst .

All for Nothing is set in East Prussia, in the winter of 45. In January, to be precise. The story mostly takes place on the Georgenhof estate, located near Mitkau, not too far from Königsberg. Königsberg which was once famous was almost completely destroyed and is now called Kaliningrad. For further understanding, I’ve added two maps.

east-prussia

The map above shows East Prussia in red. The other one below, is a map from 1945. It is more detailed and shows other territories. It’s easy to understand when you look at the maps, how precarious the situation was for the civilians in East Prussia when the Russians started to advance.

germany-1945

At the beginning of the novel, people already start to flee in the direction of Berlin, only the people on Georgenhof, the von Globig’s, behave as if nothing was happening. This is mostly due to Katharina von Globig’s character. She’s the wife of the estate owner who is serving in Italy. Together with her twelve-year-old son, her husband’s elderly aunt and Polish and Ukrainian servants, she lives a life of carefree ease. She’s someone who likes to withdraw from the world, into her own realm. She lives in an apartment inside of the large estate where nobody is allowed to enter. Here she reads, dreams, smokes, cuts out silhouettes, and thinks of an affair she had some years ago. Possibly the only time in her life in which she was really happy.

The aunt is a typical old maid. In the absence of her nephew, and knowing how little Katharina cares, she is in charge of the estate. Peter, the son, who should be with the Hitler Youth, pretends he’s got a cold and, like his mother, flees to other realms in his imagination.

When the first refugees arrive, the small household welcomes them. They feed and entertain them, just as if they were ordinary guests. Katharina may be distracted but she’s kind and generous. Even though her husband calls her occasionally and urges her to leave, she stays put.

But some of the refugees tell horror stories and even Katharina and the aunt realize that falling into the hands of the Russians might prove fatal. Only their life is so comfortable, so enjoyable, how can they leave everything behind? This is an incredible dilemma, and one can easily understand how so many waited far too long before they finally fled.

In the case of the von Globig’s it needs a tragedy that finally pushes them to make a decision.

The first half of the book tells the story before they flee, the second half, tells the story of the flight.

It was so strange, but reading the first almost peaceful part was really stressful. The reader knows what’s coming but the character’s don’t. It takes so long until it sinks in that all is lost.

The descriptions of the flight, those long, endless treks of refugees is harrowing. Not only are the Russians pushing forward, but the refugees are bombed and dead people and horses are piled up to the left and the right of the roads.

Kempowski did a great job at describing in a poignant way how this must have been without traumatizing the reader. We read, breathlessly, but it’s not too graphic and the characters are held at arm’s length. That doesn’t mean the book left me cold. Not at all but it never felt like it was manipulative and trying to shock and disgust.

People often say “Why didn’t they leave earlier?” when speaking of people who are trapped in a war zone. When you read this, you get a good feeling for the reasons. Not only do they have to abandon everything, but they have no idea whether it will be better where they are going. Besides, back then, all they had was accounts of a few other refugees and British radio. Their own radio told them that it was negative propaganda, that all was well, the frontline still secure. How would you have known for sure?

The luckiest thing may have been that they fled back to their own homeland and could stay on territory in which their own language was spoke. While many didn’t make it and many had a very uncertain future, they had at least that. Unlike the refugees that come to Europe from the war zones in the Middle East.

Before ending, I’d like to say a few things about the characters and Kempowski’s style. He does something I’ve never seen before. Almost every other sentence ends in a question mark. It’s really bizarre and I’m surprised it didn’t annoy me. Interestingly, it felt like we hear the characters question themselves all the time. I read a few reviews and apparently he tried to show the general confusion. I’d say he was very successful but it takes some getting used to. His characters are very well drawn. Even minor characters come to life. Most of the time he uses indirect speech but you can still hear the different mannerisms. People repeat the same stories again and again. Just like in real life. Sometimes that’s quite funny. People can be so absurd. Petty. Self-absorbed. Ridiculous. Under the circumstances it’s tragically comic. As I said, Kempowski keeps the reader at arm’s length, that’s why there isn’t a character I loved but there were two I genuinely disliked. One of them was Peter. I would love to know if anyone who read this had a similar reaction. The more I approached the end, the more I disliked this kid. Such a cold fish.

I’m so glad that I chose this novel for the readalong because it’s not only powerful but important. It tells a story that needed to be told and does so masterfully. Raising awareness for a tragedy, making characters  come to life on the page, but not bang your readers over the head or traumatize them – that’s no mean feat.

Other reviews

 

 

 

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All For Nothing is the fifth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2016. The list for next year’s Literature and War Readalong will be published in December. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including the book blurbs can be found here.