Category Archives: Literature in Translation

When, if not now?: The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

Between 1960 and 2010, Christa Wolf recorded her thoughts, impressions, and experiences on the same day, September 27th, in each of those years.  In 1968, the same year in which The Quest for Christa T. was published, Wolf spent time in a hospital to treat her recurring depression. In her diary for that year she writes:

Now, while writing, I begin to feel better. Just the process of writing already helps. So it will probably remain the only thing for me after all. But ‘life’—that is: political, national life—runs along the old tracks. Sometimes it seems to me that it races towards a bad end. And we stand next to it and give woebegone commentaries. But once you have jumped the tracks with such force, you do not get back on them again…

The Quest for Christa T. follows the lives and friendship of two women, the unnamed narrator and Christa T., from World War II through the 1960’s when East Germany is under communist rule. The narrator, in a nonlinear narrative, uses her own memories, Christa’s letters and diaries, and discussions with others who knew her to piece together the life of her friend who died at the age of thirty-five from leukemia.   Although the novel is not overtly political, there is a constant sense of disillusionment and restlessness that Christa T. suffers and, the like author with whom she shares her name, her only solace against this is to write.  One of Christa T.’s diary entries reads: “To think that I can only cope with things by writing!”

As the narrator describes Christa T.’s life, childhood, education, friendship, career, first love, marriage, children, an affair, she also explores important questions about identity.  One can collect a list of biographical facts about a life, but what, truly, is the essence of that person?  Can we ever reconstruct the reality of another person?  Wolf’s style of writing is complex and reading this disjoined narrative requires a great deal of concentration and reflection—my favorite kind of book.  The novel is full of deeply philosophical passages such as:

You’ll certainly remember what we used to say when one of us was feeling forlorn: When, if not now?  When should one live, if not in the time that’s given to one?  It always helped.  But now—if only I could tell you how it is…The whole world like a wall facing me.  I fumble over the stones: no gaps.  Why should I go on deluding myself: there’s no gap for me to live in.  It’s my own fault.  It’s me, I’m simply not determined enough.  Yet how simple and natural everything seemed when I first read about it in books.

The most heart wrenching and difficult parts of the story were the descriptions of Christa T.’s tragic illness and death.  When she is diagnosed with an advanced form of leukemia at thirty-five she is at a happy, content point in her life and even though she had an affair, she has settled back into her marriage and has two young children.  As her death approaches Wolf repeats the phrase “When, if not now?” a few times within the text and this is also the line with which she ends the novel.  A simple phrase, yet so profound.  Something we all contemplate in our own lives, especially as we approach middle age.  It is no wonder that the GDR kept a close eye on Wolf and informed bookstores to sell this book only to serious members of the literary community.

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Filed under German Literature, Literature in Translation

Quiet Failure: Stories by Gottfried Keller

In the Foreword to the German Library (Volume 44) edition of Gottfried Keller’s stories Max Frisch writes:

Assuming that the American reader still has this volume in his hands, I would like to point out to him that Gottfried Keller fought for liberalism but was not naïve; he soon grew bitterly apprehensive that middle-class liberalism, the great social achievement of his century, might disintegrate into a profit society pure and simple, without utopias, without transcendent values.  And that is what we have today.  Or so I fear.  If you read further you will find there is something strangely disturbing about these stories: One life after another ends in quiet failure.  You won’t notice it immediately because the man who tells these tales has a sense of humor.  He likes people even though he sees through them.  He is kind.  He knows a lot about the relationship between money and morals, for example, and he doesn’t cover it up; because he still has hope.

He would be horrified at his country—as he would be at other “democracies” as well.

Frisch’s words about Keller ring true even more so today than when he wrote them in 1982.  Keller’s novellas in the first part of this volume are set in an imaginary place that he calls Seldwyla, a small town where everyone knows each other and gossip is rampant.  The men he depicts are hard working but because of their stubbornness and narrow views of the world they bring about their own downfall.

In “The Three Righteous Combmakers,” Jobst, Fridolin and Dietrich are all craftsmen who work for a Seldwylan combmaker.  The craftsmen in Seldwyla are usually itinerant, never working for one employer for very long.  But these three men refuse to leave their present employer and they all start saving money and pinching pennies to the extreme in order to eventually buy the combmaking business.  Gottfried deals with the ridiculous frugality of these men with his typical humor.  The men are too cheap, for instance, to even think about taking a wife because of what it would cost them: “He was not accustomed to think of marriage, because he could conceive of a wife only as a person who wanted something from him that he did not owe her…”  One day, however,  Zus, the daughter of a local laundress, captures the attention of all three men when they learn she is in possession of a small inheritance.  They argue, fight, and make fools of themselves to win her hand in marriage; their uncompromising adherence to their plans to get Zus’s money causes the “quiet failure” of all three men.

In the story entitled “A Village Romeo and Juliet,” the farmers that Keller depicts from Seldwyla are equally as stubborn and uncompromising as the combmakers.  Marti and Manz are diligent men whose farms are prosperous because of their work ethic.  But when a land dispute arises between the men, their focus on this petty issue causes them to neglect their farms and their families.  Both men end up penniless and are forced to give up their once productive and beautiful farms.  In addition their children, Sali and Verena, fall in love but understand the impossibility of any marriage because of the disapproval of their fathers.  What makes Keller’s story different from the typical star crossed lovers tale is that Sali and Verena willingly and even enthusiastically take their own lives in order to control their own fate.

What I appreciated most about Keller’s writing in “A Village Romeo and Juliet” was his detailed descriptions of nature and the Seldwylan countryside.  Like the landscape, the feelings that the lovers have for each other are beautiful, raw and natural.  When the couple meets for the first time, Keller sets the scene:

Sali went directly out to the quiet, beautiful hillside over which the two fields extended. The magnificent, quiet July sun, the passing white clouds floating above the ripe, waving grain, the blue shimmering fiver flowing below—all this filled him once more, for the first time in years, with happiness and contentment instead of pain, and he stretched out full length in the transparent half-shade of the grain, on the border of Marti’s desolate field, and gazed blissfully towards heaven.

And when the lovers unite in that same field, their words are passionate and genuine, making their ending that much more tragic: “‘Oh Verena,’ he exclaimed, gazing into her eyes with candor and devotion, ‘I’ve never looked at a girl; I’ve always felt that I must love you some day, and without my wishing it or realizing it, you’ve always  been in my mind.'”

Keller himself had an interesting life and his writings all have some kind of an autobiographical element.  He said, “I have never produced anything which did not have its impetus in my outer and inner life.”  Even though was a rather short man, he was quick-tempered and got into a lot of fist fights over the course of his life.  He was also quick to fall in love and preferred young, tall and beautiful women.  But he was never able to find that one special woman with whom to settle down and marry; every time he got close something got in the way (one of his brides-to-be committed suicide, for instance).  His tendency towards fist fights, his unfilled love life , and his struggles with money are all carefully and meticulously reflected in these humorous yet tragic stories.

This collection from The German Library includes ten of Keller’s novellas.  A very worthwhile literary purchase.  What else is everyone reading this year for German Literature Month?

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Filed under Classics, German Literature, Literature in Translation, Short Stories

Comites Camillae: Some thoughts on Companions by Christina Hesselholdt

In her narrative that follows the lives of five close friends living through the trials and tribulations of middle age in the 21st century, Hesselholdt includes a conflated translation of two of the most famous poems by the Roman poet, Catullus: “My girl’s sparrow is dead…It would not leave her lap, but hopped around now here now there…He chirped constantly to his mistress alone.”  The poet engages in a passionate, tumultuous love affair with a married,  Patrician woman named Clodia (disguised as Lesbia in his poetry) and in Poem #2 he writes about his lover’s sparrow with whom she enjoys playing and teasing. (The poem is commonly view as an erotic metaphor—Lesbia plays with her “bird” when she is missing her poet-boyfriend, Catullus.)  The tone of Poem #3 changes dramatically as Clodia’s sparrow has now died and Catullus’s words serve as a mock eulogy for the dearly departed little pet.  The death of the sparrow is also foreboding, it shows Catullus’s angst about his relationship with this woman whom he knows, on some level, will bring him grief and suffering.  It is his friends, his companions (as he calls them in Poem #11—comites in the Latin ) that he relies on to get him through the rough times.

Much like Catullus, the characters in Companions struggle with loneliness and isolation in their love lives but their friendships are something to which they cling for security and reassurance amidst their various crises.  Hesselholdt’s narrative explores different types of love—romantic, filial, platonic—and the existential angst that these emotions cause.  Time and again the theme of death is considered in the author’s fragmented, intertextual, and postmodern writing.  Forty-year-old Camilla is the central figure in the narrative—or her thoughts, at least, get the most attention.  She is married to Charles who suffers from chronic, debilitating back pain and his illness has put a strain on their relationship.  Camilla’s mother is also troubled by various afflictions, both mental and physical, which are a constant source of stress for Camilla.  In addition, her dear, depressed friend Edward lives alone with his dog in the house in which his parents committed suicide by hanging themselves.  Camilla is surrounded by weakness, illness, and sadness and her thoughts are often about mortality— that of her own and those around her.

Early in the novel Camilla takes a trip to Belgrade to give a lecture and loneliness and isolation weigh on her.  Her thoughts apply to her trip as well as her current state of mind at this point in her life:

Why does the journey reinforce this existential loneliness—never am I closer to death and the abyss than when I am alone on a journey.  I know the answer already.  An unknown among unknown faces.  And unknown, unmemorized stretches.  Kingdom of the dead, glittering, indistinct features, averted eyes, withdrawal, fleeting shadows, bloodlessness.

When she is back home interactions with her mother and her husband also evoke images of death.  She says about her mother:

The other day I saw a painting by Kiefer, a painting of an enormous sunflower at the foot of which, a man is keeled over, (the title of the painting is Sol Invictus) I thought, that was how it was to be a child of hers.  The sunflower head looked like a shower head.  One moment warmth, the next in danger of drowning.  I am the one who is keeled over at the foot of the flower.  I have died the sun death, I have died the flower death.

She says about Charles and their relationship:

Married life with Charles is linked to the Osama bin Laden era, we were so in love in September 2001 that it was not until late morning on the twelfth that we realized what had happened on the eleventh, and the dissolution of our relationship took place in the days around bin Laden’s death.  Two images frame it:
1. Bodies in Free fall
2. A face shot to pieces
The end of him. And us.

And other intermittent thoughts that Camilla has that threaten to consume her and pull her down into the abyss:

I need to keep my mind active, give it something to work on, just like you use prayer beads or knitting needles to prevent your hands from becoming pendulums that heavily and resignedly pull the body down or on the contrary swing into the air or rub and pick and chewing gum for the mouth, otherwise it (the mind) fiddles with catastrophes like the outcome of which always results in coffins or in any case deathbeds or farewell letters, immensely trivial, but for that reason no less troublesome.

Camilla describes Alma, her life-long, closest friend as blonde, “my GPS, my light in the darkness.”  It is Alma that shows up in Belgrade to help her navigate the city and it is Alma who is a comforting presence throughout her childhood while she is dealing with her mother’s various issues.  Edward, Kristian and Alwilda are also close companions that provide her with support and distraction and we get their points-of-view from time to the in the text as well; they themselves are dealing with the ups and downs of various relationships.  But it is Alma who is the companion that is her constant source of solace.  They are friends from childhood and there are, fittingly, many descriptions of their traveling adventures–from England to Belgrade to Greece.

Companions is laden with references to other authors and pieces of literature; Woolf, Plath, Bernhard, Nabokov, and even a quote from Epicurus can be found within the pages of Hesselholdt’s narrative.  I had wondered if the character of Camilla is in any way autobiographical as it is evident that the author inserts her own literary preferences into the text.  Hesselholdt has especially tempted me to read Woolf’s The Waves and Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet before I return to Companions for a second read as her multilayered and nuanced book is worthy of, and in fact demands, more than one reading.  The author, in discussing Durrell’s novels through the thoughts of Camilla, subtly shows us how we ought to approach and read Companions:  “The existence of the absolute unique frame of reference is rejected; all depending on where the events in the books are seen from, they appear different.”

I apologize for my scattered thoughts about this book.  I found it overwhelming to think about.  Please visit Times Flow Stemmed for Anthony’s more coherent and enlightening ideas about this book: https://timesflowstemmed.com/2017/10/23/christina-hesselholdts-companions/

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Filed under Dutch Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction

Love Stories Must Never be Left Unfinished: Irretrievable by Theodor Fontane

“Love stories must never be left unfinished and when harsh reality has cut the thread before its time, then it must be spun out artificially.” This seems to capture perfectly the sad fate that Fontane writes for the married couples in both Effi Briest and Irretrievable. Each story features a marriage in which, although a minor indiscretion has occurred, one of the spouses chooses a desperate and unnecessary end to their relationship, their family and their lives.

Set between 1859-1861 in Schleswig-Holstein, five years before the German-Danish War, the novel  deals with Count Helmut Holk who has been married to his beautiful and devout wife Christine Arne for twenty years. Even though they have very different personalities—he is easygoing, indecisive and not spiritual, she is moralistic, self-righteous and cold— their attraction, admiration and affection for one another, at first, was rather strong.  They build and move into a beautiful castle that overlooks the sea.  And they have two teenage children, a boy and a girl, for whom Christine is searching out boarding schools that will provide them the best education.  Schleswig-Holstein at this point in time is still ruled by Denmark and the Count has an important position as an attendant at the court of the Danish princess.  Just before the Count leaves his family to serve the princess in Copenhagen for several months, there are signs that the Holks’ marriage is starting to show signs of wearing thin on both of their nerves.  Fontane describes Christine’s thoughts just before the Count is called to Denmark:

In spite of having the best of husbands whom she loved as much as he loved her, she yet did not possess that peace for which she longed; in spite of all their love, his easy-going temperament was no longer in harmony with her melancholy, as recent arguments had proved to her more than once to an ever-increasing degree and even though she would strive with all her might to resist her tendency to disagree.

I felt that Holk was the more sympathetic of the two characters throughout the story.  Fontane lets us view the marriage from the outside, through the eyes of Christine’s brother and two local clergymen, who all agree that her moralizing and constant judgment of her husband is too much and is driving them further apart.  When Holk goes to Copenhagen, the time, distance and experiences with the Princess force him to realize that what he really wants is a partner who gives him warmth, affection and understanding;

Ah, all that bickering and nagging! I’m longing for a new life, one that doesn’t begin and end with religious tracts, I want harmony in my home, not a harmonium, joy and mutual understanding and air and light and freedom.  That’s what I want and that’s what I have always wanted, ever since the first day I arrived here, and now I’ve been given the sign that I’m going to be allowed to have it.

I also found the Count’s naivete, especially when he encounters the women in Copenhagen, to be amusing and even endearing.  He is especially captivated by Ebba, the princess’s lady-in-waiting, who flirts with him and uses him for one night of unbridled passion which the Count is clearly not accustomed to.  But he figures out too late that Ebba is just using him as a temporary amusement and his wife, for the better part of a year, will not forgive his indiscretion.  Holk is a character that develops a great deal of personal knowledge and growth in Fontane’s narrative so I found it disappointing that he would even consider going back to Christine; she is still the same dour, melancholy woman he married and their time apart didn’t change that.  He learns the hard way that any happy times that they had previously are irretrievable, there is no way back to the past.

As Fontane says in the novel, a love story can’t have a non-ending—the author couldn’t possibly allow Holk and Christine to live together in their castle, no matter how miserable they make each other.  It’s interesting to note that in Effi Briest, it is Effi’s husband that is the morally stringent, destructive force in the novel because in Irretrievable it is the wife that plays this role.  It is Christine that makes a fatal, ruinous decision (I won’t give it away) that brings a definitive end to their love story, their marriage and the novel.

I am thoroughly enjoying Fontane’s novels and I have a volume of his shorter works that is published by The German Library to look forward to.

(I read the NYRB Classics translation entitled Irretrievable but this novel has also been translated into English as Beyond Recall and No Way Back.)

 

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

Year of the Drought by Roland Buti

Thirteen-year-old Gus Sutter vividly remembers the summer of 1976 not just for the preternaturally harsh drought, but also for the incidents leading up to the disintegration of his family.  Gus, his mother and father, his older sister Lea, and a mentally challenged worker named Rudy live on the family’s farm in the Swiss plateau.  Buti’s take on a coming-of-age story is captivating because of the impending sense of doom and ruin that he weaves throughout Gus’s narrative.  All of the nature around them foreshadows the sad fate of this family; the crops are burning in the sun, the family dog, Sheriff, keeps fainting and their chickens are dying by the dozens in the heat.  The Sutter’s ancient mare, Bagatelle, who never moves from her barn has broken free from her rope and made her way down to the local river to die.  And finally, perhaps the most eerie omen of all, is that Gus has found a dove that cannot fly because its fail feathers have been destroyed by a predator.

The arrival of a strange woman named Cecile, an employee at a neighboring post office, is the first hint that something is wrong with the Sutter family unit.  Cecile seems  oddly close to Gus’s mother and he can’t quite figure out why their relationship makes him so uncomfortable.  His mother has never shown very much affection or emotion towards her family.  Gus’s description of her, the morning after he finds the wounded dove,  is particularly sad since it comes from her thirteen-year-old son who clearly craves his mother’s affection:

I was glad that she had petted my dove, accepted its presence without argument.  Mum was always busy with a multitude of tasks that no doubt helped to keep her from feelings of despair.  I would have liked to be in the bird’s place.  I would have liked her to set down her towel and dry her hands, to come over and kiss me, stroke my hair, tickle my neck with the tips of her fingers.  When I left for school, she would give me a dry peck on the cheek, a kiss from the very tip of her lips that echoed in the cool morning.  Lingering on my skin for less than a millisecond, her mouth imparted no sense of its moistness.  She never gave me a tender pat of encouragement to send me on my way.

She is too busy playing the role of mother, housekeeper and accountant to enjoy anything else in life, but Cecile awakens something in her that Gus has never seen before—genuine happiness.  Gus slowly realizes that Cecile is a threat to his family when he discovers that since Cecile has moved in, Gus’s father is sleeping in the guest room.  When Gus questions his father about it, he is ruthlessly scolded for not minding his own business.

The character for whom I had the most sympathy was Gus’s father, Jean.  He inherits his farm from his own father and works from sun up until sunset to make barely enough of a living on which to sustain his family.  He is a man of few words, so it is through his actions that he demonstrates his unique, unconditional love for his wife, even when she abandons him, their children and the farm.   One night at dinner when Cecile encourages Gus’s mother to get a job, Jean nearly chokes Cecile to death in a fit of rage.  Later on, a group of neighbors make fun of Jean because of his wife’s indiscretions with Cecile and he punches and kicks these men until they can no longer stand.  But as revenge, those same men beat Jean with farm tools until he can’t walk and has to stay in bed for days.  Even Gus himself, who makes a disparaging comment about his mother after she leaves, is punched in the mouth and knocked out by his father.  As his wife drifts further and further away from him, he seems to be preparing himself for the inevitable.  Gus observes about his father:

He seemed to have decided that only objects and animals were worthy of his consideration.  He would carefully examine each tool he picked up, as if a pitchfork or a shovel could bring some answer to the problem of suffering.  He had taken to sitting down in front of Sheriff and staring at him, which made our dog uncomfortable, unused as he was to being treated as anything more than part of the furniture.  He would hang his head to the side quizzically, tongue hanging out, as if waiting for an explanation.  The truth was that Dad was training himself for solitude.

Gus’s father, after his wife leaves and the children are on their own, spends his days alone at the farm.  A very sad fate for a kind, honest, hardworking man who loved his wife, his family and his land.  Buti has created a memorable group of characters whom he fittingly sets among a vivid and harsh landscape.

Thanks to Grant at 1st Reading for recommending this book to me.  Please stop by his blog and read his wonderful review of this novel: https://1streading.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/year-of-the-drought/

 

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Filed under French Literature, Literature in Translation