A Long Blue Monday by Erhard von Büren – Swiss Week Readalong

Published in 2013, A Long Blue Monday, is Erhard von Büren’s third novel. His earlier novels Wasp Days and Epitaph for a Working Man were published in 1989 and 2000 respectively. He lives in Solothurn, Switzerland.

A Long Blue Monday tells the story of Paul Ganter, a retired school teacher who has temporarily left his wife and taken an apartment in the city to write a book about Sherwood Anderson. Very possibly he could have done that at home, but we soon learn that this time out is about much more than just writing a book. He uses the time alone to delve into his feelings and memories and relives vividly an unhappy love story that happened over forty years ago, in the summer of 1959. That year he fell in love with Claudia, a girl from a very rich family and, in a desperate attempt to impress her, takes weeks off from school to write a trilogy of plays in the vein of the great American playwrights of the time. Every day he slaves over his work that seems to be a series of soliloquies put on paper. Once it is finished, he gives the play to his crush, hoping it will impress her. Sadly, just like all his other attempts at wooing her, this barely gets a reaction. Clearly, she’s not into him. Looking back, Ganter can’t help but admire the stamina of his younger self. And he realizes that while the result of his writing wasn’t successful, locking himself away, writing daily, going for long walks and experience the changes in the weather and nature surrounding him, was one of the most intense experiences of his life.

The story is told going back and forth in time. In the present, Paul spends a lot of time writing and reminiscing, but he also has long conversations with his daughter who discovers sides of her father she never knew existed. While the love story is central, it isn’t the most important aspect of Paul’s delving into his past. He also remembers vividly what it was like to come from a poor family, in which the men were battling alcoholism. He remembers how difficult it was to know what he wanted to do with his life and to achieve it. Trying to overcome the shortcomings of his upbringing, he became a master student. Unfortunately, for the longest time, he thought that he could master life and love just like he mastered school. This set him up to failure. Being shy didn’t help him either. Love and life choices are explored, but there’s one other important thing—the narrator’s intense love of American culture that finally leads him to become an English teacher and is now one of the reasons for his time out.

I hope my review will have told you several things—this is a very complex, rich book, but it’s neither straightforward, nor plot-driven. Funnily, for a novel that talks so much about American culture, it’s very unlike most American literature I know. It’s introspective and very quiet. Far more analysis of thoughts and feelings, than scenes and action. One could say, more telling than showing. The story meanders, goes back and forth in time, returns to certain events, adds additional information. Just like it happens to all of us in real life. We rarely remember events in a straightforward way.

I liked A Long Blue Monday very much. It’s a quiet book about a quiet, shy man, who feels strongly, struggles and fails, struggles some more, and then succeeds and finds meaning in all sorts of things. My favourite parts were the nature descriptions and if I had read this in English, you’d find dozens of quotes. The descriptions are lyrical and beautifully crafted. They are the most eloquent sign of the narrator’s rich interior life.

While reading A Long Blue Monday, I couldn’t help but think of another Swiss author, who writes similar descriptions— Robert Walser. If you know me, you know this is high praise.

I hope some of you have read this as well. I’m looking forward to the discussion.

Meet the Translator of A Long Blue Monday – Helen Wallimann

Helen Wallimann and Erhard von Büren working on a translation (Photo credit Silvia Reitz – Solothurner Woche)

 

As many of you know, our next readalong, on Wednesday, is dedicated to Erhard von Büren’s novel A Long Blue Monday. Since many of the readers of this blog are interested in the process of translation, I thought it would be great to do an interview with Erhard von Büren’s wife, Helen Wallimann, who is also his translator.

I enjoyed her answers very much and hope you will too.

 

 

 

Without any further ado — let’s welcome Helen Wallimann to the blog.

How did you become a literary translator?

That’s a long story! I was brought up in England by Swiss parents so I was bilingual from the start (English and Schwyzerdütsch, the Swiss-German dialect), and even believed that everyone spoke Schwyzerdütsch at home and English outside the family circle. As my father ran a hotel I knew, too, that different people spoke different kinds of English; so when we were in Lucerne just after the war I taught my little cousins how to get chewing-gum from US soldiers by asking – in what I mistakenly thought was slangy American English – “Any gum chum?”

As soon as I’d learned to read I became an avid reader. This would be useful later on: a translator needs to have an extensive vocabulary, particularly in her own language.

After graduating in French and German from Edinburgh University I worked in publishing in Munich, Paris and London, so I gained a lot of editorial experience. From 1973 to 2001 I was employed as a French and English teacher at the Kantonsschule Solothurn (similar to the old British grammar school), so I was indirectly but practically concerned with comparative linguistics – in fact one of my senior classes made fun of me because apparently one of my favourite sayings was “It’s not quite the same”.

In 1989-90 and again in 2002-03, I spent altogether two years teaching English at Chinese universities. After that I started to attend Chinese classes at the University of Zurich as an “unregistered student”. The second year I was there I attended a seminar on Modern Chinese Poetry. As there were only about half a dozen students in the class I had to take my turn at translating the poems. I was allowed to translate into English instead of German. As I’d retired from teaching I had plenty of free time, so I spent hours trying to produce correct translations in fluent English while preserving the poetic character of the originals. I found that it was something I loved doing. The professor liked my work and subsequently asked if I’d be willing to translate Swiss folk tales for a Chinese-English bilingual translation to be published in Hong Kong (Legends from the Swiss Alps). Later I translated various articles by Chinese artists, art critics and curators for two books on contemporary art in China. I also had the privilege of translating poems by the celebrated Hong Kong writer Leung Ping-kwan for a small book, The Visible and the Invisible: Poems (mccmcreations, Hong Kong),which was published when the poet was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Zurich.

After that I thought I might as well have a go at translating the first of the novels by my husband, Erhard von Büren. After all, I do understand German much better than Chinese!

Were there any particular challenges in translating Erhard von Büren?

I think translating literary texts always presents challenges. Take, for example the title of Epitaph for a Working Man, Erhard’s first novel, the story of the last year in an old man’s life as told by his son. The German title, Abdankung, has at least three meanings: resignation, abdication or, in Switzerland, funeral service or funeral oration. It also includes the word Dank (thanks). I found it impossible to translate the word adequately and had to invent a new title. That’s an example of the general problem of vocabulary: there’s often no exactly corresponding word in English, particularly for things like political institutions, traditional activities, food, even types of school – do English, American, Canadian etc. readers of  A Long Blue Monday all know what a Swiss “Gymnasium” is?

In Wasp Days there was an additional problem: each section has its own character, depending on its main theme. So the first section is made up mainly of straightforward narrative, the second one seems like a compendium of random notes and stories, the third is full of ironic description of academic research (here I had to be careful to use the right philosophical, ethnological, sociological, psychological etc. terms); the fourth section is mainly straightforward narrative again, but actually very ironic and funny: the fifth section is mainly made up of conversations; the sixth is more or less a stream of consciousness chapter, it’s also full of lyrical description. Finding the right tone for each section was quite a challenge!

Passages in A Long Blue Monday that were particularly difficult to translate were the lyrical ones that reoccur in the different seasons and describe fields of wheat or barley and the narrator’s mental turmoil as he strides through them.

Could you describe the process of translating A Long Blue Monday?

First of all, you must know that I don’t translate to earn a living. So I can take my time.

Of course I knew the book very well before I started on the translation in the autumn of 2016. So I just started at the beginning and worked through it. By March 2017 I’d completed a first draft which I subsequently sent to a friend in England for her comments. Then I did nothing on the book for a couple of months. The feedback from my friend didn’t arrive until the end of July. But by that time I’d carefully reread my translation and wasn’t at all satisfied with it. So I went through the whole book again with a fine tooth comb, reading the text aloud to make sure all the sentences adequately reflected the meaning and tone of the original, trying out different variants, revising, changing back… It was a slow process. But early in the new year I sent the revised manuscript to another friend in England for her comments. I finally sent the book off to the publishers at the beginning of March 2018.

Were there any passages in A Long Blue Monday where you needed to be creative because the German didn’t translate easily into English?

I’ve already mentioned the lexical problems. But of course there’s also the problem of German grammar and sentence structure: it’s very different from the English, so you just have to be creative if you want to produce a truly fluent translation. By chance I still have a few variations of the opening paragraph of the book. Here’s the German original.

Wie ich jeden Tag drei, vier Mal den Haselweg entlangging bis zum Wasserreservoir, einem mit Gras bewachsenen Erdwall an der Kreuzung vorne; wie ich dort links abbog und den steilen Feldweg Richtung Wald einschlug, am Waldrand entlangging bis zur Ecke oberhalb Langendorfs; wie ich zwischen zwei Feldern hindurch auf dem Trampelpfad die Strasse erreichte, die den Hang herauf- und hinüberführt zur Sagackerhöhe.

The very first phrase “Wie ich … den Haselweg entlangging” (How I … walked along Haselweg) is a problem for the translator. The German reader probably understands “(When I look back) I see myself walking along Haselweg three or four times a day…” How can you convey this in English without it sounding stilted?

Here are three of my many drafts, the first being a more or less literal translation.

  • How I’d walk along Haselweg three or four times a day as far as the reservoir, a grass-covered earth wall up at the crossing of paths; how I’d turn off left from there and take the steep track leading up to the wood, then follow the edge of the wood as far as the corner above Langendorf; how I’d continue along the footpath between two fields to reach the road that leads up the slope and across to Sagacker Heights.

 

  • Three or four times every day my walks along Haselweg as far as the reservoir, a grass-covered earthwork up at the crossing; turning off left there I’d take the steep track up to the wood and follow the edge of the wood as far as the corner overlooking Langendorf, then take the footpath between two fields to reach the road leading up the slope and across to Sagacker Heights.

 

  • Every day, three or four times, walking along Hazel Wood path as far as the reservoir, a grass-covered earthwork up at the crossing; turning off left there up the steep track to the wood; along the edge of the wood as far as the corner overlooking Langendorf; then along the footpath between two fields to reach the road that led up the slope and across to Sagacker Heights.

 

And here is the translation as it appears in the final publication. Note that, for the triple repetition of “wie ich…” – which is an important stylistic element in the original, I used “I’d…” three times.

 

Three or four times a day, I’d walk along Haselweg as far as the reservoir, a grass-covered mound up near the crossing; I’d turn left down the steep field path to the wood, then skirt the wood as far as the corner above Langendorf; from there I’d take the dirt track between two fields to reach the road that goes up the slope and across to Sagacker Heights.

Do you prefer to translate prose or poetry?

Poetry, really. Because you can spend a lot of time working on a poem: if you spent the same amount on each paragraph of a book, you’d never get to the end.  In general, if I’m not translating, I’m too impatient to reread poems several times, which is something you ought to do if you want to really appreciate a poem. So I get more out of a poem when I try to translate it. Also, it’s very satisfying to feel you might have found an adequate translation. It’s almost as though you’d written the poem yourself.

You are stranded on the proverbial desert island and you are allowed one book to take for translation purposes. Which would it be and why?

I hope it would be a nice Caribbean island and not the kind of island William Golding’s Pincher Martin landed on! Whatever, I’d want a book entitled something like “How to survive on a desert island”. Then, before starting with the translation, I’d search it for useful instructions on things like finding fresh water, opening coconuts, recognising what things are edible, making a fire, fishing, building a hut… And of course how to make signals so that you might be seen by passing ships, airplanes or satellites. Then, if the book proved to be useful but I still hadn’t been rescued, and also provided it gave instructions on how to make writing utensils and paper, I might translate it, just to pass the time. But probably I’d spend my free time writing a diary, hoping it might become a bestseller … if I ever got rescued.

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Thank you so much, Helen, for this fascinating insight into your work as a multilingual translator.

Welcome to German Literature Month 2018

November is here and German Literature Month begins.

Normally I do share my plans with you at this stage, not so this year. I will be focussing on our readalong titles. If I manage something else, wonderful, if not, that’s OK as well.

Just to remind you – here’s our program again:

Week 1: Children and Young Adult Fiction (November 1-7)

November 7 – Readalong with Lizzy: The Book Jumper – Mechthild Glaser

Amy Lennox doesn’t know quite what to expect when she and her mother pick up and leave Germany for Scotland, heading to her mother’s childhood home of Lennox House on the island of Stormsay. Amy’s grandmother, Lady Mairead, insists that Amy must read while she resides at Lennox House – but not in the usual way. It turns out that Amy is a book jumper, able to leap into a story and interact with the world inside. As exciting as Amy’s new power is, it also brings danger – someone is stealing from the books she visits, and that person may be after her life. Teaming up with fellow book jumper Will, Amy vows to get to the bottom of the thefts – at whatever cost.

Week 2: Crime Week (November 8-14)

November 14 – Readalong with Caroline: Blue Night – Simone Buchholz

The hair stands up on the back of my neck and I get an age-old feeling in my belly. Like there’s a fight ahead. Like something’s really about to go off…

After convicting a superior for corruption and shooting off a gangster’s crown jewels, the career of Hamburg’s most hard-bitten state prosecutor, Chastity Riley, has taken a nose dive: she has been transferred to the tedium of witness protection to prevent her making any more trouble. However, when she is assigned to the case of an anonymous man lying under police guard in hospital – almost every bone in his body broken, a finger cut off, and refusing to speak in anything other than riddles – Chastity’s instinct for the big, exciting case kicks in.

Fresh, fiendishly fast-paced and full of devious twists and all the hard-boiled poetry and acerbic wit of the best noir, Blue Night marks the stunning start of a brilliant new crime series, from one of Germany’s bestselling authors.

Week 3: 1918 Week (November 15-21)

November 21 – Readalong with Lizzy: The Emperor’s Tomb – Joseph Roth

The Emperor’s Tomb is a magically evocative, haunting elegy to the vanished world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and to the passing of time and the loss of youth and friends. Prophetic and regretful, intuitive and exact, Roth’s acclaimed novel is the tale of one man’s struggle to come to terms with the uncongenial society of post-First World War Vienna and the first intimations of Nazi barbarities.

Week 4: Swiss Literature Week (November 22-28)

November 28 – Readalong with Caroline: A Long Blue Monday – Erhard von Büren

The novel portrays, with dry humour, delicate irony and a touch of nostalgia, the lives and feelings of young people in the late 1950s.

“Erhard von Büren pours out memories of love affairs, of family life, of student experiences or incidents from his readings… His style is spiced with waywardness and wit.” – Award of the Canton Solothurn Prize for Literature.

In A Long Blue Monday, the narrator, who is temporarily away from home working on a book about Sherwood Anderson, remembers his unrequited love affair with Claudia, whom he met at college during rehearsals for a play.

How could he, the village lad, the son of a working-class family, aspire to gain the affection of Claudia, a sophisticated town girl, who lives with her wealthy family in a spacious house by the river? Worlds seem to separate the two. But he is convinced that where there’s a will there’s a way. As a young boy, he had tried, by being a model pupil and a model son, to repair his family’s damaged reputation. But now, in spite of all his attempts, his love remains unreciprocated. Finally he decides to take several weeks off college to write a play – a trilogy, no less – to gain Claudia’s esteem.

Week 5: Read as you please (November 29-30)

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Please do not forget to enter your posts on the German Literature Month site, so everybody knows what’s happening and can visit your blogs.

Happy reading!

Announcing German Literature Month VIII – November 2018

German Literature Month is eight years old this year, and part of the literary calendar. Lizzy and I know that because of the chatter that continues throughout the year about books purchased and set aside for the event. And that makes us very happy.  We’re even happier when you read them during November.

For those though who are wondering what this is all about, and may wish to join us for the first time, November is the month for reading works originally written in German: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, essays, comics, graphic novels.  Anything you fancy really, in any language you fancy, as long as the original language was German. Then tell the world about it: on your blog, facebook, twitter, instagram, goodreads, amazon, wherever. It all adds up to one great banquet of Austrian, German and Swiss literary goodness. This, for example, was last year’s menu. https://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/2017/12/05/german-literature-month-vii-author-index/

The last couple of years have been entirely read as you please, but this year Lizzy and I wanted to introduce new themes and add in more social reading opportunities. So we’ve devised the following plan.

Week 1: Children and Young Adult Fiction (November 1-7)

November 7 – Readalong with Lizzy: The Book Jumper – Mechthild Glaser

Week 2: Crime Week (November 8-14)

November 14 – Readalong with Caroline: Blue Night – Simone Buchholz

Week 3: 1918 Week (November 15-21)

November 21 – Readalong with Lizzy: The Emperor’s Tomb – Joseph Roth

Week 4: Swiss Literature Week (November 22-28)

November 28 – Readalong with Caroline: A Long Blue Monday – Erhard von Büren

Week 5: Read as you please (November 29-30)

As always, you may read as you please for the month, or you may choose to join in any (or all) of the specific themes and readalongs.  It’s entirely up to you.  The main thing is to enjoy yourself!  Will you join us?

Final Thoughts on German Literature Month 2016

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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.

 

Alex Capus: Almost Like Spring – Fast ein bisschen Frühling (2002)

almost-like-springfast-ein-bisschen-fruhling

I wanted to post every other day during German Literature Month as I’ve read so many books in advance but last week was such an awful week. First the shocker election, then Leonard Cohen’s death, then the death of the brilliant Austrian writer Ilse Aichinger. So depressing. I’m sure many people feel the same way. Despondency may not be helpful but sometimes it needs room and needs to be acknowledge before we can move on.

cohenaichinger

I’ve not read any books by Alex Capus so far. I thought I wouldn’t like his writing but I’m glad to say, he’s so much better than I expected. I picked Almost Like Spring – Fast ein bisschen Frühling because it’s set in Basel, Switzerland. As many of you know, I live in Basel. There aren’t a lot of books set in this city, so I was curious because of that too.

As Capus writes at the beginning of his novel, Almost Like Spring tells the true story of the German bank robbers Kurt Sandweg and Waldemar Velte. Fleeing from Wuppertal, Germany after having robbed a bank and killed someone, they arrived in Basel in the winter of 33/34. The plan was to flee to India but one of them fell in love with a shop girl, Dorly Schupp, who was working in the record department where the two robbers bought Tango records. Dorly worked at Globus, a department store that still exists and is known because it’s one of the rare Jugendstil buildings in Basel.

globus

Sandweg and Velte are depicted like two rebels and compared to Bonnie and Clyde. At any other time, one would have simply called them anti-social, but the way Capus depicts them, they were victims too. They robbed a bank because they were desperate, without a job and seeing no future in a Germany where the Nazis were taking over power. Sandweg and Velte are a peculiar pair; they are so close that people think they might be lovers but what they share is rather a bit like a folie à deux. In their heads, they’re on a mission – fighting poverty and injustice. One of them falls in love with Dorly, the other one with one of her colleagues— Alex Capus own grandmother. While the pair is in Basel, they buy a Tango record every day and go for long walks through the old town and along the Rhine, accompanied by the two young women.

The descriptions of these walks are lovely. The way Capus describes the weather, the cold winds from Siberia, and how it can get warm again, all of a sudden, in the middle of winter, because those winds change course and warm winds from the south arrive, is so spot on. The four young people don’t do much on these walks, but all four of them feel free. Dorly lives with her elderly mother, while Capus’ grandmother is engaged and will soon marry a man she never really liked. The two women don’t know that the men are criminals and when they finally leave Basel, they are disappointed.

Unfortunately, the plan to take a ship to India doesn’t work and a couple of weeks later, after having stayed in Spain, the two men are back in Basel and the real tragedy begins. They rob another bank, kill people, and are hunted down.

Most critics haven’t found anything good to say about this novel. I’m not sure why. Is it the tone? Capus mixes fact and fiction. He stays outside of his character’s heads, which makes it sound like a report at times, but the book is rich in mood and atmosphere. He captures the times and women’s fates so well. What choices did they have back then? Dorly’s actually living a relatively independent life, but Capus’ grandmother, who isn’t from Basel, is expected to return home soon and get married. While the storytelling is a bit dry, the mood is anything but.

I’m not sure about the descriptions though. Readers who haven’t been to Basel may be able to picture the department store Globus but the city? I don’t think so because he mentions street names but doesn’t really describe them.

Be it as it may, sometimes I agree with critics, sometimes I don’t. In this case I don’t agree. Almost Like Spring is a lovely book. It’s a rounded, historically accurate, atmospheric book that mixes fact and fiction to great effect.

Welcome to German Literature Month

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Finally it’s November. Those of you who follow my blog might have noticed I was a bit quiet in the last weeks. With good reason. I was busy reading German, Austrian, and Swiss literature.

As you know, Lizzy and I have decided to do a “Read as you please month” with only two themed weeks.

A crime week during week two, hosted by Lizzy.

All For Nothing

The Literature and War Readalong on November 25, in which we read and discuss Walter Kempowski’s WWII novel All For Nothing – Alles umsonst.

For those who are still looking for titles, here are the books I have already read and those I’m still planning to read.

Weit über das Land

Peter Stamm’s latest novel. I must admit, I might not review it. It’s the worst book I’ve read this year. I can still not believe he wrote something like this.

letti-park

Judith Hermann’s new short story collection Lettipark. I’ve not finished this yet but I can already see that it’s a mixed bag.

karen-kohler

Karen Köhler’s short story collection Wir haben Raketen geangelt.

I bought this collection a while ago but haven’t read it yet. When I was looking for reviews of Judith Hermann’s book I saw it mentioned a few times. Most critics came to the conclusion that readers would do better to read Köhler instead of Hermann. I’ll let you know what I think.

in-my-brothers-shadowam-beispiel-meines-bruders

I’ve only heard great things about Uwe Timm’s memoir In My Brother’s ShadowAm Beispiel meines Bruders. As far as I can tell, (I read the beginning), it’s amazing.

almost-like-springfast-ein-bisschen-fruhling

Almost Like SpringFast ein bisschen Frühling, is my first Alex Capus and if the rest is as good as the beginning, it won’t be my last.

fivefunf

Last year I read Ursula Poznanski’s Erebos and was pretty much blown away. While I liked Five – Fünf a bit less, it’s still a really gripping book. You may have noticed that her adult crime novels are published under another name, Ursula P. Archer, in English. If you’re still looking for a page turner for crime week and are not too squeamish, you’ll enjoy this.

denkbilder

These are my plans so far. I might add some Walter Benjamin and one of the fantasy novels by Nina Blazon Der Winter der schwarzen Rosen (not translated yet).

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I hope you’re all busy making plans and wish you all a great month. I hope you’ll discover a lot of great books. Happy Reading!

 

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There will be a few giveaways.

Here’s a sneak peek.

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Please add your reviews to this site German Literature Month.