Marguerite Duras: The War – La douleur (1985) Literature and War Readalong April 2017

Marguerite Duras’ affecting book The War – La douleur  is a collection of texts based on her war diaries. Before beginning my review, I have to mention that I’ve read the French edition and don’t know how close to the English it is. It seems that the two last texts, two short stories, have been left out in the English edition but I could be wrong. I’m not going to review them here. Each of the texts covers another time period.

1945

La douleur – The pain is the first text in the book and is also the longest and appears to be the only one that she left as she found it. Duras said that she couldn’t remember writing this diary and that, to her, it seemed more powerful than any of the literary texts she’d ever written. La douleur, which was written during April 1945,  describes in painful details, how Marguerite Duras waited for the return of her husband, Robert L., a member of the resistance, who had been deported to Buchenwald in 1944.

Duras managed to convey the anxiety of those waiting and the incredible difficulties to take care of someone who came back. They knew to which camp Robert had been brought and so, knowing the Germans had lost the war, they followed the news closely and went to the centres to which those who returned came and questioned them. Duras knew that Buchenwald had been liberated, but she didn’t know if by that time Robert was still alive. Once she found someone who had seen him, there was still the fear that he might have been among those shot by the fleeing Germans. Why, she wonders did they shoot them just minutes before the arrival of the Allies? In Buchenwald alone 51,000 were shot, while 20,000 survived. Possibly, he was among the survivors but if so, he might still die of exhaustion or an illness. A little later, when they hear that the German cities are literally burning, another anxiety joins the fears she had before. He might be trapped in a fire storm and get killed that way.

In the end, two of her friends travel to dacha (Robert had been moved a few times) and bring him back. Before they arrive, they warn her – she might not recognize him. The tall man weighs a mere 38 kilograms and looks horrific. He’s very ill and his survival is almost a miracle.

1944

Monsieur X – Pierre Rabier is the second text in the collection. It describes the cat-and-mouse game a Gestapo official plays with Marguerite Duras. He pretends her husband hasn’t been deported yet, meets her often, wants to have an affair with her. He may think he’s the stronger one, but Duras plays a game with him as well. She learns everything about him and later uses it to help sentencing him to death.

After the war

Albert des capitales and Ter le milicien both describe how Duras and other members of the resistance take part in torturing and forcing people to give them information that will lead to their or other people’s sentencing. In these two pieces she changed names and wrote about herself in third person, calling herself Thérèse.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. I’m familiar with Marguerite Duras and love her writing but I still thought this would be just another WWII memoir. It isn’t. Most memoirs fous either on the war – on the battle field or the home front – or on the camps. I don’t think I’ve ever read a memoir by someone who was waiting for someone and about the challenges of the return. There’s so much going on in these pages. Every day, there’s a new anxiety regarding her husband and every day the people in France find out more details about the war. The French sent 600,000 Jews to the camps. One in 100 came back. They didn’t know any details about the camps until the end of the war. Other arresting details capture that for France the end of the war also meant the end of the occupation. Or what it was like to see Paris at night illuminated again.

As I wrote before, some of the texts deal with what happened to collaborators. Duras seems to have taken an active part in their arrest and punishment. I couldn’t help but wonder what I would have done. I can absolutely not imagine myself watching someone being tortured or even torturing someone.

There were also aspects that were especially interesting for me, as a French person, because the liberation and its aftermath, the coming to power of de Gaulle have led to problems France is battling to this day. Marguerite Duras mentions that de Gaulle only wanted to emphasize that the Allies won the war. He didn’t mention the camps, nor did he want them mentioned because it had to be about glory not about pain. Possibly this explains the choice of title because she thinks you have to discuss the pain. You have to hear the people who suffered. I’m afraid that the logic behind not mentioning the camps isn’t only linked to “glory” and such. If you don’t talk about the camps, you don’t need to talk about those who were deported to the camps and the people who sent them there. Ultimately, this leads to the refusal to admit responsibility and the denial that there were collaborators.

French politics aside, this is one of the most important WWII texts I’ve ever read. The writing is tight, evocative and detailed, just what I had expected from Marguerite Duras.

 

Other Reviews

My Book Strings

 

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The War – La douleur is the fourth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next readalong is dedicated to war poetry. Discussion starts on Wednesday 31 May, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.

Literature and War Readalong April 2017: The War – La douleur by Marguerite Duras

Usually I like to say a few introductory words about my readalong titles, but I’m in bed with the flu and my head feels like it’s filled with cotton. The book has to speak for itself. Luckily, I found the first pages of  the translation of Marguerite Duras’ The War – La douleur online.

Here is the beginning:

I found this diary in a couple of exercise books in the blue cupboards at Neauphle-le-Chateau.

I have no recollection of having written it.

I know I did, I know it was I who wrote it. I recognize my own handwriting and the details of the story. I can see the place, the Gare d’ Orsay, and the various comings and goings. But I can’t see myself writing the diary. When would I have done so, in what year, at what times of day, in what house? I can’t remember.

One thing is certain: it is inconceivable to me that I could have written it while I was actually awaiting Robert L.’s return.

How could I have written this thing I still can’t put a name to, and that appalls me when I reread it? And how could I have left it lying for years in a house in the country that’s regularly flooded in winter?

The first time I thought about it was when the magazine Sorcieres asked me for a text I’d written when I was young.

The War is one of the most important things in my life. It can’t really be called “writing.” I found myself looking at pages regularly filled with small, calm, extraordinarily even handwriting. I found myself confronted with a tremendous chaos of thought and feeling that I couldn’t bring myself to tamper with, and beside which literature was something of which I felt ashamed.

April

Opposite the fireplace and beside me, the telephone. To the right, the sitting-room door and the passage. At the end of the passage, the front door. He might come straight here and ring at the front door. “Who’s there?” “Me.” Or he might phone from a transit center as soon as he got here. “I’m back — I’m at the Lutetia to go through the formalities.” There wouldn’t be any warning. He’d phone. He’d arrive. Such things are possible. He’s coming back, anyway. He’s not a special case. There’s no particular reason why he shouldn’t come back. There’s no reason why he should. But it’s possible. He’d ring. “Who’s there?” “Me.” Lots of other things like this do happen. In the end they broke through at Avranches and in the end the Germans withdrew. In the end I survived till the end of the war. I must be careful; it wouldn’t be so very extraordinary if he did come back — it would be normal. I must be careful not to turn it into something extraordinary. The extraordinary is unexpected. I must be sensible: I’m waiting for Robert L., expecting him, and he’s coming back.

The phone rings. “Hello? Any news?” I must remind myself the phone’s used for that sort of thing, too. I mustn’t hang up, I must answer. Mustn’t yell at them to leave me alone. “No, no news.” “Nothing? Not a sign?” “Nothing.” “You know Belsen’s been liberated? Yes, yesterday afternoon…” “I know.” Silence. “You mustn’t get disheartened, you must hold on, you’re not the only one, alas — I know a mother with four children…” “I know, I’m sorry, I haven’t moved from where I was. It’s wrong to move too much, a waste of energy, you have to save all your strength to suffer.

She said, “You know Belsen’s been liberated?” I didn’t know. One more camp liberated. She said, “Yesterday afternoon.” She didn’t say so, but I know the lists of names will arrive tomorrow morning. I must go down and buy a paper and read the list. No. I can hear a throbbing in my temples getting louder and louder. No, I won’t read the list.

 

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

La douleur  – The War by Marguerite Duras, 217 pages, France 1985, WWII

This 1944 diary of a young Resistance member, written during the last days of the French occupation and the first days of the liberation, is only now being published – Duras says she forgot about it during the intervening years, and only recently rediscovered it in a cupboard. The loneliness and ambivalence of love and war have appeared in Duras’ work before, from The Lover to Hiroshima Mon Amour, in which a Frenchwoman reveals to her Japanese lover, after the bomb, that she was tortured and imprisoned in postwar France for her affair with a German soldier. In the first section of The War, Duras the heroine waits for her husband to return from the Belsen concentration camp. When De Gaulle (“by definition leader of the Right – “) says, “The days of weeping are over. The days of glory have returned,” Duras says, “We shall never forgive him.” It’s because he’s denying the people’s loss. When her husband returns, she has to hide the cake she baked for him, because the weight of food in his system can kill. (We are spared no detail of his physical degradation, even to being told the color of his stools.) When he is stronger, she tells him she is divorcing him to marry another Resistance member. In the second section, set earlier, at the time of her husband’s arrest, a Gestapo official plays a cat-and-mouse game with Duras, to whom he’s attracted, preying on her desperation to help her husband. In the third section, post-liberation, she switches roles, becomes an interrogator as Resistance members torture a Nazi informer. She also half-falls in love (with characteristic Duras dualism) with a young prisoner who childishly joined the collaborationist forces out of nothing more than a passion for fast cars and guns. In her preface, Duras says it “appalls” her to reread this memoir, because it is so much more important than her literary work. Certainly, like everything she has written in her spare, impassive voice, the book is at once elegant and brutal in its honesty: in her world, we are all outcasts, and the word “liberation” is never free of irony. A powerful, moving work. (Kirkus Reviews) –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 28 April 2017.

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

Bohumil Hrabal: Closely Observed Trains – Ostře sledované vlak (1965) Literature and War Readalong March 2017

Published in 1965, Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains – Ostře sledované vlaky, was one of the author’s greatest successes and has even been made into a movie. Hrabal wrote a first version of this book, which was more radical but had no chance of getting published. While this second version still contains a lot of what was unacceptable in Czechoslovakia at the time – the depiction of unheroic death and sex – by the time it was published, the public was ready and embraced Hrabal’s irreverent tale, in which sex ultimately leads to a young man’s demise.

Closely Observed Trains tells the story of a young man, Milos Hrama, who is an apprentice at a train station. Milos is back at work after three months of sick leave. He tried to kill himself after failing in bed with his girlfriend. He’s still a virgin and afraid that if he has a second chance with his girlfriend, the result will be the same.

It’s the end of the war and the Germans are slowly being defeated. But still trains from and to the Eastern front arrive at the small but strategically important station. Trains that transport wounded soldiers, maimed cattle, animals on their way to the slaughterhouse. Some of this is described quite graphically. I even had to put dow the book a few times.

The little station has been the scene of a scandal. One of the employees, dispatcher Hubicka, used the official stamps and applied them to the naked bottom of a beautiful telegraphist. The story has made the rounds and people come to have a look at the audacious Hubicka. Many are scandalised, but many more admire him for his gutsy behaviour. The station master pretends he’s shocked, but he’s too involved with his own life to really care. He’s busy climbing the social ladder, licking asses, caring for his beloved pigeons, and shouting at people.

All this fascinates Milos whose over sexed imagination is combined with the fear of failing again in the future. In many comic scenes he tries to talk about his fears to different people.

The sexual aspects of the novel are in many instances hilarious, but the book is still very serious. Some of the humour is used to ridicule collaborators and the Germans themselves aren’t spared. There’s no empathy for the enemy. Towards the end, when Dresden is bombed, one of the character’s laconic comment to a wounded German soldier, “You should have stayed home, shouldn’t you?”, is quoted again.

The most striking aspect of the book is that it combines scenes of horror and humour and in doing so achieves a distortion that gives the story an absurd feel. It’s as if the war wasn’t taken seriously, not because the people don’t get how serious it is but as an act of defiance. It’s as if the characters were saying to the Germans—you may think you defeated us – think again – you failed because we refuse to take you and your war seriously.

I enjoyed reading this book a great deal. It reminded me of some Czech movies I’ve seen during a Czech movie festival. Many of them used the same type of humour. It’s a mix of the absurd and the burlesque. Exaggerations, tall tales. At times this humour is close to slapstick but always stops right before turning into this cruder humour. It’s the behaviour, the attitude of the people that’s funny. They aren’t goofs, they are eccentrics.

I expected a lot from this slim novel and am happy to say – I wasn’t disappointed.

 

Other Reviews

TJ (My Book Strings)

Marina Sofia (findingtimetowrite)

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Closely Observed Trains is the third book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next book is the French WWII memoir La douleur  – The War by Marguerite Duras. Discussion starts on Friday 28 April, 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.

Literature and War Readalong 2017

house-made-of-dawnmagnusclosely-observed-trainsthe-warpoems-of-the-great-warvoices-from-stone-and-bronzeconvoymemorandumceremonysuite-francaisethe-oppermanns

Some Literature and War Readalong lists took a long time. Not this one. The only thing that took some time was deciding whether I wanted to choose twelve books like I used to or only five like I did in the last two years. In the end, I decided for a compromise and that’s why this year’s list has ten titles, three of which will be the readalong books for May. Usually the summer months and the end of December have never been ideal dates, so I’m skipping those.

Now to my book choices. As you will see, with one exception, they are all focussing on WWII. I always strive for diversity and this year is no exception. There are books from five different countries on the list. Every year I include American novels, this year, to make a statement, I chose two Native American writers. Three of the other novels are French, one is Czech, and one German. May’s choice(s) are special because, for the first time, I decided to include poems. We will be reading and discussing British war poems. Some from poets who wrote during WWI, some from contemporary poets like Vanessa Gebbie and Caroline Davies. I’d like to thank Caroline for suggesting I include poems.

Here are the books and their blurbs.

house-made-of-dawn

January, Tuesday 31

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.

magnus

February, Tuesday 28

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.

closely-observed-trains

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.

the-war

April, Friday 28

La douleur  – The War by Marguerite Duras, 217 pages, France 1985, WWII

This 1944 diary of a young Resistance member, written during the last days of the French occupation and the first days of the liberation, is only now being published – Duras says she forgot about it during the intervening years, and only recently rediscovered it in a cupboard. The loneliness and ambivalence of love and war have appeared in Duras’ work before, from The Lover to Hiroshima Mon Amour, in which a Frenchwoman reveals to her Japanese lover, after the bomb, that she was tortured and imprisoned in postwar France for her affair with a German soldier. In the first section of The War, Duras the heroine waits for her husband to return from the Belsen concentration camp. When De Gaulle (“by definition leader of the Right – “) says, “The days of weeping are over. The days of glory have returned,” Duras says, “We shall never forgive him.” It’s because he’s denying the people’s loss. When her husband returns, she has to hide the cake she baked for him, because the weight of food in his system can kill. (We are spared no detail of his physical degradation, even to being told the color of his stools.) When he is stronger, she tells him she is divorcing him to marry another Resistance member. In the second section, set earlier, at the time of her husband’s arrest, a Gestapo official plays a cat-and-mouse game with Duras, to whom he’s attracted, preying on her desperation to help her husband. In the third section, post-liberation, she switches roles, becomes an interrogator as Resistance members torture a Nazi informer. She also half-falls in love (with characteristic Duras dualism) with a young prisoner who childishly joined the collaborationist forces out of nothing more than a passion for fast cars and guns. In her preface, Duras says it “appalls” her to reread this memoir, because it is so much more important than her literary work. Certainly, like everything she has written in her spare, impassive voice, the book is at once elegant and brutal in its honesty: in her world, we are all outcasts, and the word “liberation” is never free of irony. A powerful, moving work. (Kirkus Reviews) –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

poems-of-the-great-warvoices-from-stone-and-bronzememorandum

May, Wednesday 31

Poems of the Great War

Published to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of Armistice, this collection is intended to be an introduction to the great wealth of First World War Poetry. The sequence of poems is random – making it ideal for dipping into – and drawn from a number of sources, mixing both well-known and less familiar poetry.

Voices from Stone and Bronze by Caroline Davies

A moving, honest and never sentimental collection that gives a voice to London’s many war memorials.
In her second poetry collection Caroline Davies turns her attention to the War Memorials of London. Voices from Stone and Bronze brings to life those who fought and died and those who survived, including some of the sculptors who had themselves come through trench warfare to a changed world.
Meticulously researched and deeply humane, these narrative poems apply a lyrical sensibility without sentimentalism; a deeply affective collection.

Memorandum by Vanessa Gebbie

Memorandum is a haunting collection of poems that summons voices from the shadows of the First World War. Vanessa Gebbie transforms prosaic records of ordinary soldiers, and the physical landscape of battles, war graves and memorials, into poignant reflections on the small and greater losses to families and the world. Vanessa Gebbie is a writer of prose and poetry. Author of seven books, including a novel, short fictions and poetry, her work has been supported by an Arts Council England Grant for the Arts, a Hawthornden Fellowship and residencies at both Gladstone’s Library and Anam Cara Writers’ and Artists’ Retreat. She teaches widely. http://www.vanessagebbie.com “From the idea of a shell reverting to its unmade, peaceful state to dead men buried in Brighton and France being mourned by their mother in Glasgow … heartrending images such as the Tower of London’s ceramic poppies seen as callow recruits, doubts about a corpse’s identity and how dregs at the bottom of a cup can be reminiscent of the deadly Flanders mud. This is a modern view, wise and compassionate, of Europe’s fatal wound.” Max Egremont, author of Siegfried Sassoon and Some Desperate Glory, The First World War the Poets Knew “Vanessa Gebbie is that rare breed of poet who understands the trials and tribulations of the ordinary Tommy.” Jeremy Banning, military historian and researcher, battlefield guide “The dead who linger around memorials and battlefields slowly step again into the light. History may remember them collectively, but Gebbie’s achievement is to present, with sensitivity and without sentimentality, lives rooted in the particular rhythms of hometowns, families, and memories.” John McCullough, author of Spacecraft and The Frost Fairs “These poems rise like ghosts from a scarred landscape.” Caroline Davies, author of Convoy

ceremony

September, Friday 29

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, 243 pages, US 1977, WWII

The great Native American Novel of a battered veteran returning home to heal his mind and spirit
More than thirty-five years since its original publication, Ceremony remains one of the most profound and moving works of Native American literature, a novel that is itself a ceremony of healing. Tayo, a World War II veteran of mixed ancestry, returns to the Laguna Pueblo Reservation. He is deeply scarred by his experience as a prisoner of the Japanese and further wounded by the rejection he encounters from his people. Only by immersing himself in the Indian past can he begin to regain the peace that was taken from him. Masterfully written, filled with the somber majesty of Pueblo myth, Ceremony is a work of enduring power. The Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition contains a new preface by the author and an introduction by Larry McMurtry.

suite-francaise

October, Tuesday 31

Suite Française by Irène Nemirovsky, 432 pages, France 1942, WWII

Set during the year that France fell to the Nazis, Suite Française falls into two parts. The first is a brilliant depiction of a group of Parisians as they flee the Nazi invasion; the second follows the inhabitants of a small rural community under occupation. Suite Française is a novel that teems with wonderful characters struggling with the new regime. However, amidst the mess of defeat, and all the hypocrisy and compromise, there is hope. True nobility and love exist, but often in surprising places.

Irène Némirovsky began writing Suite Française in 1940, but her death in Auschwitz prevented her from seeing the day, sixty-five years later, that the novel would be discovered by her daughter and hailed worldwide as a masterpiece.

the-oppermanns

November, Wednesday 29

The Oppermanns  – Die Geschwister Oppermann by Lion Feuchtwanger, 416 pages, Germany 1934, WWII

First published in 1934 but fully imagining the future of Germany over the ensuing years, The Oppermanns tells the compelling story of a remarkable German Jewish family confronted by Hitler’s rise to power. Compared to works by Voltaire and Zola on its original publication, this prescient novel strives to awaken an often unsuspecting, sometimes politically naive, or else willfully blind world to the consequences of its stance in the face of national events — in this case, the rising tide of Nazism in 1930s Germany. The past and future meet in the saga of the Oppermanns, for three generations a family commercially well established in Berlin. In assimilated citizens like them, the emancipated Jew in Germany has become a fact. In a Berlin inhabited by troops in brown shirts, however, the Oppermanns have more to fear than an alien discomfort. For along with the swastikas and fascist salutes come discrimination, deceit, betrayal, and a tragedy that history has proved to be as true as this novel’s astonishing, profoundly moving tale.

 

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I’m looking forward to reading these books and hope that some of you might be tempted to join me and join the discussions.

For those who are new to this blog – you can either read the book and just join the discussion or you can post a review on your blog/Goodreads  . . . as well. I post my review on the announced date and will link to anyone else’s review. The discussion normally begins that day and lasts several days.

Uwe Timm: In My Brother’s Shadow – Am Beispiel meines Bruders (2003)

in-my-brothers-shadowuwe-timm

Maybe you’ve never heard of Timm’s novella The Invention of Curried Sausage. If you haven’t, do yourself a favour and get it because it’s marvellous. Possibly because I loved that novella so much, I stayed away from In My Brother’s ShadowAm Beispiel meines Bruders, although I’d been keen on reading it since it came out in 2003. There’s not one reader or critic who doesn’t think it’s essential reading. But we all know how it goes – everyone praises something, and one has read another book by an author that one loved  . . . I’m glad I finally overcame my reluctance because if ever a book was essential reading – then it’s this one. And for many reasons, not only as a brilliant WWII and post-war memoir.

In his memoir In My Brother’s Shadow, Timm doesn’t only try to reconstruct his brother’s life and find out who he really was, but examines his own family and the German post-war society. Timm was born in 1940, the third and last child of his parents. His sister and brother were both over sixteen years older. His brother Karl-Heinz was his father’s favourite. When Karl-Heinz was severely wounded and later died in 1943, on the Eastern Front, in the Ukraine, his father was devastated. The older son was everything he’d wished for. He would take over his business. He was courageous and heroic, unlike little Timm who’s squeamish and dreamy.

Although soldiers weren’t allowed to write a diary, Karl-Heinz did and after he died of his wounds, it was sent back to his parents.

When he’s almost sixty and both of his parents and sister dead, Uwe Timm, rereads the diary and the brother’s letters and decides to write this memoir.

It is clear from the beginning that he doesn’t consider his brother to be a hero. He’s too shocked by some of the diary entries. They are cold and devoid of any compassion with the soldiers and civilians he kills. Karl-Heinz is a member of the SS Panzer Division Totenkopf (Skull and Crossbones). One of the SS’s notorious elite divisions. But what shocks Timm even more, and that’s because it’s also part of the post-war mindset, are the omissions. He knows his brother was present when some of the most horrific extermination operations went on, but he doesn’t mention anything. And in the end, he even stops writing his diary because, as he writes, it doesn’t make sense to write about awful things.

Reading Timm’s account, you can feel that he was ashamed and horrified that he had a brother like this. And he’s ashamed and horrified because of the way people spoke right after the war. Many found it perfectly OK that Jews were killed and were only angry about losing the war. Many others said they “didn’t know” but it was clear they had only chosen not to know.

The silence and passivity of the masses disgusted Timm. He also found out that many soldiers were given a choice whether they wanted to be part of a firing squad or not. Hardly anyone said no. Interestingly though, saying no, had absolutely no consequences. They didn’t choose to fire people because they were scared but simply because they wanted to.

Timm also explores his father’s authoritarian education methods which were pretty typical for that time. Kids had to obey and if they didn’t  they were slapped, hit or worse. Psychologists have found out a long time ago that this “black pedagogy” as it is called was one of the reasons why Hitler and Nazism were so successful.

While the book is harsh on his family and many other Germans, it still captures the suffering. His family, like so many others, lost everything when Hamburg was destroyed in ’43. For many years they lived in a cellar.

In My Brothers’ Shadow is also amazing as a book about writing a memoir. What it means to dig deeper and find family secrets. It’s not surprising, he was only able to write about everything so honestly, after his parents and sister were dead.

Uwe Timm is a wonderful, stylish writer that’s why this memoir has many poetic elements. It is a fascinating and touching story of a German family.

One thing that Timm’s elegant and poignant memoir illustrates admirably well – silence is political. Looking the other way is not innocence it’s complicity. This should be self-evident, unfortunately, it wasn’t then and it’s still not now. I’m glad I finally read this memoir. Especially just after Kempowski’s novel. They are great companion pieces.

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.