Monthly Archives: January 2016

Review: My Mother’s Lover by Urs Widmer

My Review:
My Mother's LoverThis is another gem that I discovered from Seagull Books; I seem to be particularly fond of their German literature in translation offerings.

Clara is young, beautiful and rich in the early years of the 20th century.  Her father, who is from Italy, has shaken off his poor beginnings and after getting an education has become an engineer and has made a very comfortable life for his family.  The story of Clara’s upbringing, family and her relationship with a famous orchestra conductor is told to us by Clara’s son on the very day that Clara’s lover dies.

When Clara is a little girl she is prone to fits of anger that paralyze her.  The fits that the narrator describes appear to actually be epileptic seizures; when Clara has these episodes she can’t move, her fists are clenched and she retreats inside her own head and into a fantasy world.  As Clara gets older these fits subside, but we can’t help but wonder if they have a lingering effect on her mental health.

Clara’s mother dies when she is a teenager and Clara is left to live alone with her stern, regimented and emotionally detached father.  Clara gets up every morning to prepare her father’s breakfast in the exact way in which he demands; she runs the household and follows the same routine day after day.  Her life changes, however,  when she meets a man named Edwin who is a conductor of a Young Orchestra that he has formed on his own.  Edwin’s group of musicians are mostly students and poor, but they participate in the orchestra because of their genuine love of music.  It is also evident to everyone in the music world at this time that Edwin is a talented conductor who will one day be well-known for his musical genius.

Edwin asks Clara to become the secretary for the Young Orchestra and Clara throws herself into this job with the utmost enthusiasm.  Like many of the musicians in the group, Clara idolizes Edwin and does whatever she can to make Edwin’s orchestra a success.  She does her job magnificently and she takes no salary for her hard work.  But when her father dies in 1929 of a sudden heart attack, he leaves her alone and penniless and her entire life and fortune change dramatically.

Clara is lucky enough that, by this time, the Orchestra is starting to make money and she can draw a salary from her job on which to live.  Edwin also offers her his modest apartment which he is moving out of because he can afford a much better place to reside.  It is also at this point in time when Edwin starts having a sexual relationship with Clara.  But the relationship is emotionally one-sided and after he satisfies himself  Edwin leaves Clara feeling alone and empty.  But throughout all of this Clara still holds Edwin on a pedestal and accepts whatever scraps of attention that Edwin throws at her.

Clara’s devotion to Edwin is sad and difficult to understand.  It is the classic situation of a woman being in love with a man who doesn’t deserve her.  Long after Clara and Edwin are both married to other people, Clara still has feelings for him that run very deep.  Clara’s son tells us that his mother is constantly whispering Edwin’s name right up until the very end of her life.  Clara becomes so mentally unstable that she needs to be checked into an institution where she undergoes electro-shock therapy.  Clara also tries to commit suicide several times throughout the years.  Even at the end of her life, when she is in her eighties and living in a nursing home, she cannot let go of her thoughts of Edwin.

My Mother’s Lover is a short but powerful book about love, devotion, and mental health.  I am so glad to discover that Seagull Books has an extensive backlist of fantastic books that I will enjoy making my way through for a long time to come.

About the Author:
Urs Widmer was born in Basel in 1938. He studied German, Romance languages and History in Basel, Montpellier and Paris. In 1966 he completed his doctoral thesis on German postwar prose, and then worked as an editor for Walter Publishing House in Olten, Switzerland, and for Suhrkamp Publishing House in Frankfurt. In Frankfurt he stayed for 17 years, though with Suhrkamp only until 1968. Together with other editors he founded the ›Verlag der Autoren‹. Until his death Urs Widmer lived and worked as a writer in Zurich.

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Filed under German Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Seagull Books

Review: My Marriage by Jakob Wassermann

I received an advanced review copy of this title from The New York Review of Books.  The original novel was published in German in 1934 and this English translation has been done by Michael Hofmann

My Review:
My MarriageWassermann presents us with the story of Alexander Herzog and his disastrous marriage to a woman from a middle-class German family named Ganna.  Alexander begins his tale with a history of Ganna’s childhood which seems to have a profound effect on her mental stability as an adult.  Ganna is one of six daughters, fifth in line, and is described as a duckling among swans.  She is not as pretty, graceful or demure as her sisters.  Her disobedience and lying often result in brutal beatings from her father.  No one ever thinks that Ganna could attract a man to marry; but Alexander, a young and up-and-coming writer, enters the scene and Ganna is smitten with him.

The beginning of the story has a light and funny tone as Alexander tells us about Ganna’s devotion to him and his writing.  She follows him around like a puppy and adores anything and everything he writes.  During this time Alexander is not able to make a successful living from the sales of his books so he is often in debt and wondering where his next meal will come from.  It starts to wound his pride when he is forced to rely heavily on the charity and pity of his friends.  Ganna suggests marriage to him because her rather sizeable dowry would mean the end of his financial woes.  Alexander dismisses Ganna’s suggestion of marriage as ridiculous, first and foremost because is not the one- woman, settling-down type of man.  But Ganna is relentless and finally wears him down, even threating to jump off a balcony if Alexander doesn’t agree to marry her.

Alexander lets Ganna and her world wash over him and he accepts his fate as her husband and a member of her extended family.  But Alexander’s passivity is his greatest flaw and he ignores the many warning signs of his impending misery and doom.  I kept reading the book and cringing because of all the gloomy foreshadowing.  The marriage starts to unravel rather quickly because it is evident that Ganna is mentally unstable, volatile, paranoid, and quite possibly psychotic.  She yells at the servants and then plays the part of the victim; she makes quick and intimate friends with various people in society and just as quickly makes them her mortal enemy.  Ganna and Alexander fight constantly and all the while Alexander keeps believing that he can change Ganna, calm her down, make her see reason.

After about ten years of marriage Alexander has many affairs which Ganna accepts as something that Alexander needs to do;  she is content with the fact that she is the lawful wife and that he will always come home to her.  But when Alexander meets and falls in love with a woman named Bettina, all of this changes.  Bettina is kind and patient and happy and Alexander, possibly for the first time in his life, falls deeply in love with her.  After carrying on their affair for several years, Alexander finally decides that he must ask Ganna for a divorce.  This divorce pushes Ganna over the edge to the point at which she is completely obsessed with making Alexander’s life miserable.  She employs one lawyer after another to ring more  and more money out of him and to drag out the divorce for years.  At one point it is estimated that she has a team of forty lawyers working to make Alexander’s  life miserable.  The last third of the book goes on for pages about the awful mess that Ganna makes out of everyone’s life and the horrible stress she causes to Alexander and Bettina.

I really should not have finished reading this book before bed because I laid awake for quite awhile thinking about it.  The combination of Alexander’s passivity and Ganna’s mental instability causes a perfect storm of misery for both of them.  The book is also an interesting commentary on mental illness and the far-reaching effects it has on a family.  How does one deal with a person who is so completely irrational, paranoid and volatile?  I think if Ganna were written about in the 21st century should would probably be diagnosed with a personality disorder or a psychosis.

The New York Review of Books has reissued another great classic from the German Language which I highly recommend if you enjoy books that explore marriage, psychological issues and unforgetable characters.

 

About the Author:
J WassermannBorn in Fürth, Wassermann was the son of a shopkeeper and lost his mother at an early age. He showed literary interest early and published various pieces in small newspapers. Because his father was reluctant to support his literary ambitions, he began a short-lived apprenticeship with a businessman in Vienna after graduation.

He completed his military service in Nuremberg. Afterward, he stayed in southern Germany and in Switzerland. In 1894 he moved to Munich. Here he worked as a secretary and later as a copy editor at the paper Simplicissimus. Around this time he also became acquainted with other writers Rainer Maria Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Thomas Mann.

In 1896 he released his first novel, Melusine. Interestingly, his last name (Wassermann) means “water-man” in German; a “Melusine” (or “Melusina”) is a figure of European legends and folklore, a feminine spirit of fresh waters in sacred springs and rivers.
From 1898 he was a theater critic in Vienna. In 1901 he married Julie Speyer, whom he divorced in 1915. Three years later he was married again to Marta Karlweis.

After 1906, he lived alternatively in Vienna or at Altaussee in der Steiermark where he died in 1934 after a severe illness.
In 1926, he was elected to the Prussian Academy of Art. He resigned in 1933, narrowly avoiding an expulsion by the Nazis. In the same year, his books were banned in Germany owing to his Jewish ancestry.

Wassermann’s work includes poetry, essays, novels, and short stories. His most important works are considered the novel Der Fall Maurizius (1928) and the autobiography, My Life as German and Jew (Mein Weg als Deutscher und Jude) (1921), in which he discussed the tense relationship between his German and Jewish identities.

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Filed under Classics, German Literature, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books

Review: The Seagull Books Catalogue 2015-16

Seagull CatalogueI know what my readers are thinking: You are reviewing a catalogue, how boring can that be?  But please bear with me for a moment because the Seagull Catalogue of books is so much more than a listing and description of their forthcoming titles.  It is a work of art, of literature and literature in translation in its own right.

When I first suggested to Naveen at Seagull Books that I review their catalogue I was surprised to find that no one had ever done so before.  He told me that they choose a theme every year and it starts with a letter from him to everyone involved in their process, from authors to translators to booksellers.  The responses he receives from writers are translated into English and finally are passed along to their artist Sunandini so that she can design the corresponding art work.  The entire process for publishing this catalogue is impressive, to say the least, and the final product is a beautiful work of art.

Naveen’s opening letter for this catalogue, dated February 13th, contains reflections about sight Eyesand blindness and hindsight.  His letter begins, “Man will pluck their eyes.  This is known. Out of shame. And horror. Over a deed committed. Often more imagined than the truth.  Sometimes as a gesture made drama.”  The first two responses to his letter, from Reinhard Jirgl and Benedict Anderson, pick up on the idea of blindness as a punishment by referring to the Ancient Greek story of Oedipus.

Oedipus marries a woman who is much older than him; he doesn’t truly see or recognize her, he only sees happiness.  If he had truly looked at her and seen her he might have noticed the family resemblance because Jocasta is actually his biological mother.  Jocasta chooses to hang herself when the truth is revealed but Oedipus sees this as an easy way out.  In order to truly punish himself for his crime he chooses to gouge his eyes out; blindness will cause him deeper and a more prolonged suffering than death.  Naveen and Ben continue their interesting conversation via letters about blindness as penance in different cultures, stories and myths.

Boy on a trainThe artwork that corresponds to the series of letters is equally as stunning.  In one image a boy looks out the window of what appears to be a train;

 

Seagull Paintingin another a sculpture is being painted with the finishing touches and emphasis being put on the eyes;

 

 

 

Red eye ravenand in yet another a raven is painted in black with its eye highlighted in a striking shade of red.

 

 

The catalogue also gives us a chance to experiences pieces from writers whose works are forthcoming from Seagull.  One of my favorite writings from the first part of the catalogue is a snippet of a the notebooks of Klaus Hoffer whose personal memoir recounts his suffering from the medical condition of elephantiasis.  Because of this illness, different parts of the body become painfully swollen and as a result his classmates called him “Oedipus” which in Ancient Greek literally means “swollen foot.”  Hoffer speaks about the themes of suffering and punishment which for him are of a very personal nature.  He contemplates and attempts suicide a few times in his life but by the end of this writing he seems to be resigned to his sickly fate at the age of 42.  I look forward to Hoffer’s novel Among the Bieresch, a description of which is included in the catalogue and will be published later this month by Seagull.

I could go on and on describing the writing and art work in this beautiful catalogue which is almost 500 pages long.  Thomas Bernhard, Max Neumann and Pascal Quingard all have pieces in the catalogue that are short yet powerfully descriptive works.  Furthermore, Seagull demonstrates their appreciation for the work of excellent translators by including three poems from James Reidel who has done a masterful job of translating several Seagull titles.

Naveen is not only a publisher but he is a brilliant artist and writer worthy of the same attention he brings to the books he publishes.  After reading the catalogue I am even more confident of his ability to continue to find and highlight the best of translated literature, poetry, philosophy and essays from around the world.

 

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Filed under Art, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Seagull Books

Review: Georg Trakl Poems

My Review:
G Trakl PoemsI loved the first novel I read from Seagull Books so I decided to give some of their poetry a try.  I was not disappointed; and, in fact, this small but powerful little book captivated my attention.  I had intended to read a few poems a day over the course of several weeks.  But I finished the collection in a couple of sittings because once I started reading the poems I could not put the book down.

After reading this collection of Trakl poems I was not surprised to discover that he had a very brief and tragic life.  His poems are filled with the language of decay, dying, sunset, twilight, birds of carrion and shadows.  But I got the feeling that despite his internal struggles, Trakl desperately wanted to fight his way out of the abyss and find some meaning, some bright spot, some redemption in what was otherwise a depressing existence.

A common theme in this collection of poems is nature and the natural decay that every living thing experiences.  But mixed within this decay there is also a natural, cyclical process of death and rebirth.  In the opening poem a flock of ravens sense that a meal is near.  They fight over their meal and once sated they fly away, almost gracefully “like a funeral cortege/Into winds tingling with ecstasy.”  Dinner for ravens means rot and decay is present but it is also nourishment and continues their lifespan; it is the fuel that allows them to make that flight at the end of the poem.

One of my favorite poems in the collection “In Autumn” perfectly describes Trakl’s struggle against death and decay.  Although fall is the season where everything starts to wither and die, the poet captures the beauty of this time of the year.  He describes sunflowers that “blaze along the fence” and women who labour “singing in the fields.”  And although he mentions death, the poem ends on a high note:

The dead houses have been opened wide
And painted beautiful with sunshine.

Scenes that capture the essence of autumn and winter abound in this collection.  These are my favorite seasons in New England and may be why these poems resonated so much with me.

Trakl also captures the calm of twilight and evening, the declining of the day,  in several of these poems.  In the poem “Decay,” he manages to bring together decay, autumn and the evening into one short and descriptive poem.  He asks us to imagine him following the birds “in their glorious flight” as they are “disappearing into autumn’s clear breadths.”  And as he wanders “through the twilight-filled garden” Trakl imagines the birds taking flight and he has dreams that follow them along their paths into the sky and onto “brighter destinies.”  Once again, we feel him fighting against his melancholy and wanting to take flight from it like those birds he so admires.

Finally, I have to mention the artwork that Seagull books chose to adorn the cover of this beautiful collection.  The bright red is striking against the backdrop of a scene of nature which is outlined in black.  The choice of a crow on the cover perfectly captures the themes of nature and decay contained within the volume.  Seagull has another volume of Trakl poems forthcoming which I am very eager to get my hands on.

About the Author and Translator:
G TraklGeorg Trakl was born in Salzburg, Austria. As a teenager he gravitated towards poetry, incest and drug addiction and published his first work by 1908, the year he went to Vienna to attend pharmacy school and became part of that city’s fin-de-siècle cultural life. He enjoyed early success and published his first book in 1913. A year later, however, he died of a cocaine overdose due to battle fatigue and depression from the wartime delay of his second book.

James Reidel is poet, translator, editor and biographer. In addition to the works of Georg Trakl, he has translated novels by Franz Werfel and poetry by Thomas Bernhard, among others. He is the biographer of poet Weldon Kees and author of two volumes of poetry.

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Filed under Classics, German Literature, Poetry, Uncategorized, World War I

Review: The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Gallic Books through NetGalley.

My Review:
Lena GauntWhen we first meet Lena Gaunt, she is a lonely octogenarian who has been invited to play her theremin at a music festival near her home in Perth, Australia.  Lena has had a long and interesting life and her most notable accomplishment has been as an innovative musician.  After her performance on her theremin, a odd looking electric instrument that one plays by manipulating one’s hands in the air without touching it, she relaxes in her trailer by smoking some heroin.  At first this seems funny that a woman her age is engaging in such extracurricular activities; but as we learn more about Lena’s life, we come to understand that her dependence on mind altering drugs helps numb the pain of the  devastating losses she has experienced.

Lena is actually born in Singapore in 1910 where her father is a successful and wealthy businessman.  When Lena is only four-years-old she is shipped off to Australia to attend a boarding school.  This is the first experience of lost love that Lena experiences.  She is alone at this school, far away from any family and her only comfort is her music.  Her mother’s brother, Uncle Valentine, drops in on her every once in a while and it is Uncle Val that eventually introduces her to the cello.  Music becomes, for Lena, an escape, a comfort; it soothes her and gives her something on which to focus.

When Lena is a young adult she finally settles in Sydney among a group of artists and their patrons.  It is during this period where she is introduced to a professor who has invented the theremin and her expert playing and manipulation of this innovate instrument are what launches her into the spotlight.  It is also during this time that Lena meets the love of her life, Beatrix, who is a talented painter and artist in her own right.

Lena has a full life during which she is showered with accolades and acknowledgement for her musical talent.  But despite her success,  a feeling of loss and loneliness pervade her life.  She moves around the world, from Paris to London to New York City, but in the end she finds her way back to Perth and to the beach and ocean which she loves so much.

This seems, at first, like a quiet and slow book but about half way through it grabs you and sneaks up on you until you can’t put it down because you so desparately want to know what happens to Lena and those she loves.  I will admit that I had to wipe a tear or two from my eyes after finishing her story.

Gallic Books has brought us another brilliant, character centered story that I highly recommend.  They were one of my favorite publishers last year and their winning streak continues with me.  Kudos to Tracy Farr for a successful first book that is being published not only in her native Australia, but in England and the United States as well.

About the Author:
Tracy FarrTracy Farr is an Australian novelist, short story writer, and former research scientist. Since 1996 she’s lived in Wellington, New Zealand

Tracy’s debut novel The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt is published in Australia and New Zealand by Fremantle Press (2013), and in the UK by Aardvark Bureau (2016) for international release (excl. Aus/NZ).

 

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction