Tag Archives: German Literature Month

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

Review: Medea—A Modern Retelling by Christa Wolf

This title was translated from the original German by John Cullen.

My Review:
medeaI have to admit that as a classicist I try to avoid retellings of ancients myths and texts because they never live up to the brilliance of the original authors.  I had passed over Wolf’s Medea and Cassandra for this very reason, but a fellow bibliophile with similar reading tastes to my own convinced me to give Wolf’s books a try and I am so glad that I did.

Jason is portrayed as the archetypal Greek hero in the ancient myths; he has unusual circumstances surrounding his birth, he is not raised by his parents but instead by a Centaur, he goes on a quest during which his strength and intelligence are greatly tested, and he has a complicated relationship with women.  Although, in Jason’s case it is actually one very powerful woman named Medea.  While on his quest with his fellow Argonauts, to get the Golden Fleece from King Aeëtes  in the dark, unknown city of Colchis, he encounters Medea.  Euripides and Seneca both portray Medea as a sinister and violent woman who uses her magic arts to get what she wants and to exact revenge on her enemies.  As she is leaving Colchis with Jason on the Argo, she chops up the body parts of her young brother so that their father, the King, has to stop his ship and collect the pieces of his son.  And when Jason breaks off his marriage with Medea to marry the young princess in Corinth, Medea makes him pay the price by murdering their children.

Wolf’s Medea is an intense, passionate,  assertive woman who questions and even challenges the power of two kings.  At home in Colchis, there is a movement among the lower classes, which is supported by Medea, to invoke an old law that will force King Aeëtes to step down in deference to his son, the next in line for the throne.  It is Medea’s father who is responsible for her brother’s murder because in eliminating his heir to the throne he rejects the will of the people and retains his crown.  Medea is so sickened by her father’s choice to murder his own child that when the Argonauts arrive in Colchis she views her chance to help Jason as a means of escape from the King’s absolute rule.  Medea betrays her father, helps Jason capture the Golden Fleece, and on the way back to Iolcus on the Argo she scatters the bones of her murdered brother as a type of funeral service and tribute to him.

Wolf’s begins each chapter in her Medea with a quotation fitting for the character that is speaking;  many of the quotes that Wolf chooses are from the ancient plays of Seneca and Euripides.  But the quotations that are especially striking are those that Wolf borrows from René  Girard’s book Violence and the Sacred.  Leukon, an astronomer for King Creon who sympathizes with Medea and tries to warn her about the treachery of her enemies, has a speech during which he recounts seeing an angry mob of citizens who chase Medea through the streets of Corinth.  A rumor that has been started about Medea that she is the cause of Corinth’s misfortunes and that she was the one who murdered her brother.  Wolf quotes this fitting passage from Girard:

People want to convince
themselves that their misfortunes
come from one single responsible person
who can easily be got rid of.

The people of Corinth insist that, despite a lack of evidence, Medea is the cause of all their evils and she will be their scapegoat.  They distrust foreigners, especially the darker skin people from Colchis whose traditions and culture they do not understand.  The Colchians who came to Corinth with Medea are referred to as refugees, are marginalized and forced to live in poor conditions in a seedy side of town.  Medea is viewed as the leader of these unwanted refugees and so all of the Corinthians’ frustration is misdirected at her and they believe that by eliminating her that their city will once again be prosperous.

In addition, Wolf’s portrayal of Jason shows a man who is much more conflicted than the archetypal hero of Greek myth.  When Jason and Medea find themselves guests of King Creon there is a deep level of mistrust for Colchians, and Medea in particular with her gifts of healing and astrology.  King Creon ejects Medea and her two children from the palace and she is forced to live in a hut adjacent to the royal dwelling.  But Jason still loves her deeply and craves the physical and sexual attentions that he gets from Medea.  As Corinth begins to suffer a series of catastrophes such as drought, earthquake and plague, Medea’s enemies conspire against her to help make her the scapegoat for all of the evils that Corinth is suffering.  King Creon, who had secretly sacrificed his youngest daughter to keep his throne, is on the verge of being exposed by Medea’s questions and investigations.  In the end, Jason chooses to side with the King in order to save himself.  But Wolf shows us a Jason who is truly conflicted, weeps openly, and whose decisions do not come lightly.

Finally, something must be said about Wolf’s brilliant writing.  The book is a series of eleven monologues, each given my a different character who is involved in this series of circumstances in Corinth.  Wolf is a master at altering her writing to reflect the different characters which she is trying to portray.  Medea’s monologues, for instance,  are very eloquent and intelligent.  She understands the impossible circumstances that surround her and she is very reflective about what brought her to this place.  Jason, on the other hand, is brash and his dialogue has more short sentences and imperatives.  One of the other monologues that is masterfully written is that of Glauce, King Creon’s youngest daughter.  She is very naïve and immature and the run on sentences in her monologue reflect her confusion and misunderstanding about what is going on around her.

I can say that Wolf’s retelling of this ancient text has not only impressed me but has also given me a renewed interest in revisiting the original authors and viewing them from a new perspective.

About the Author:
c-wolfAs a citizen of East Germany and a committed socialist, Christa Wolf managed to keep a critical distance from the communist regime. Her best-known novels included “Der geteilte Himmel” (“Divided Heaven,” 1963), addressing the divisions of Germany, and “Kassandra” (“Cassandra,” 1983), which depicted the Trojan War.

She won awards in East Germany and West Germany for her work, including the Thomas Mann Prize in 2010. The jury praised her life’s work for “critically questioning the hopes and errors of her time, and portraying them with deep moral seriousness and narrative power.”

Christa Ihlenfeld was born March 18, 1929, in Landsberg an der Warthe, a part of Germany that is now in Poland. She moved to East Germany in 1945 and joined the Socialist Uni A citizen of East Germany and a committed socialist, Mrs. Wolf managed to keep a critical distance from the communist regime. Her best-known novels included “Der geteilte Himmel” (“Divided Heaven,” 1963), addressing the divisions of Germany, and “Kassandra” (“Cassandra,” 1983), which depicted the Trojan War.

She won awards in East Germany and West Germany for her work, including the Thomas Mann Prize in 2010. The jury praised her life’s work for “critically questioning the hopes and errors of her time, and portraying them with deep moral seriousness and narrative power.”

Christa Ihlenfeld was born March 18, 1929, in Landsberg an der Warthe, a part of Germany that is now in Poland. She moved to East Germany in 1945 and joined the Socialist Unity Party in 1949. She studied German literature in Jena and Leipzig and became a publisher and editor.

In 1951, she married Gerhard Wolf, an essayist. They had two children.

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Review: Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman by Stefan Zweig

I received a review copy of this title from Pushkin Press via Netgalley.  This novella was published in the original German in 1925 and this English version has been translated by Anthea Bell.

My Review:
twenty-four-hoursStefan Zweig is a master at writing short stories that are full of descriptive details, interesting characters and surprise plot twists.  It is truly amazing that he manages to do this all within the span of 100 pages.  The setting of this short piece is a hotel on the French Riviera where a group of upper class citizens from various countries are vacationing.  A shocking social incident has occurred within their social circle and this scandal has all of the guests arguing and gossiping.

The narrator, who never gives us his name, is staying on the Riveria and interacts with the other guests, incluing a German husband and wife, a “portly” Dane, an Italian married couple, and a distinguished and older English lady.  This group of strangers usually just engage in small talk and mild jokes while eating their meals, but the disappearance of Madame Henriette has disturbed their peaceful routine.  A young, handsome and garrulous Frenchman arrived at the hotel on the previous day and captivated everyone’s attention.  Zweig shows his skill at describing characters with just the right mix of adjectives and metaphors:

Indeed everything about him was soft, endearing, charming, but without any artifice or affectation.  At a distance he might at first remind you slightly of those pink wax dummies to be seen adopting dandified poses in the window displays of large fashion stores, walking-stick in hand and representing the ideal of male beauty, but closer inspection dispelled any impression of foppishness, for—most unusually—his charm was natural and innate, and seemed an inseparable part of him.

The shock comes when Madame Henriette, the wife of a wealthy businessman, disappears with the Frenchman after knowing him for only a couple of days.  All of the guests at the hotel are very quick to condemn and judge Henriette for throwing away her marriage, her children and her reputation.  The narrator is the only person who comes to Henriette’s defense and reminds the guests that it might have been possible that Henriette was caught in a “tedious, disappointing marriage” and thus had a valid reason for running off with a young man who was virtually a stranger.  This heated debate has a profound effect on Mrs. C, the distinguished English lady, who requests a private meeting with the narrator.

The story that Mrs. C. tells the narrator involves an incident in her life when she was forty-two, some twenty years earlier.  The incident had left her so embarrassed and mortified that she never told a word of it to another soul, until now.  Henriette’s impulsive decision to run away with the Frenchman has brought up old memories for Mrs. C. and she wants to unburden her soul from the guilt of her own folly.  Mrs. C. tells the narrator that, as a widow who lost her husband to an unexpected illness, she traveled around Europe while grieving for her beloved spouse.  Alone and miserable, she finds herself in Monte Carlo, one of her husband’s favorite places for entertainment, and meets a twenty-four-year old man with a serious gambling problem.

The events that unfold between Mrs. C. and the gambler bring up feelings of passion, anger, redemption, impulsivity and regret.  I don’t want to give away what happens between the widow and the young man, but I will say that Zweig has a gift for writing shocking and unexpected plot turns.  I never would have guessed the ending to Mrs. C’s story and I was riveted until the very last page of this short book.  Zweig shows us that he is an astute observer of human emotions; love, loneliness, passion and sexual desire can make us lose our minds and do irrational things which are completely out of character.

One final aspect of Zweig’s writing that must be mentioned is his careful attention to detail, even in a short work like this novella.  When Mrs. C. arrives at the casino, she describes the chiromancy—guessing a person’s moves by observing their hands— that her husband had taught her.  This English woman spent hours observing the players’ hands which are much more telling than facial expression.  Zweig writes about Mrs. C’s practice of chiromancy:

All those pale, moving, waiting hands around the green table, all emerging from the ever-different caverns of the players’ sleeves, each a beast of prey ready to leap, each varying in shape and colour, some bare, others laden with rings and clinking bracelets, some hairy like wild beasts, some damp and writhing like eels, but all of them tense, vibrating with a vast impatience.

Zweig’s description of the players via their hands is absolutely fascinating and absorbing and is another surprising gem found within the pages of this short piece.

November is German Lit. Month hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.  The full list of reviews for this event can be found here: http://germanlitmonth.blogspot.co.uk/ and on Twitter #GermanLitMonth.

About the Author:
Stefan Zweig was one of the world’s most famous writers during the 1920s and 1930s, especially in the U.S., South America and Europe. He produced novels, plays, biographies and journalist pieces. Among his most famous works are Beware of Pity, Letter from and Unknown Woman and Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles. He and his second wife committed suicide in 1942.

Zweig studied in Austria, France, and Germany before settling in Salzburg in 1913. In 1934, driven into exile by the Nazis, he emigrated to England and then, in 1940, to Brazil by way of New York. Finding only growing loneliness and disillusionment in their new surroundings, he and his second wife committed suicide.

Zweig’s interest in psychology and the teachings of Sigmund Freud led to his most characteristic work, the subtle portrayal of character. Zweig’s essays include studies of Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Drei Meister, 1920; Three Masters) and of Friedrich Hlderlin, Heinrich von Kleist, and Friedrich Nietzsche (Der Kampf mit dem Dmon, 1925; Master Builders). He achieved popularity with Sternstunden der Menschheit (1928; The Tide of Fortune), five historical portraits in miniature. He wrote full-scale, intuitive rather than objective, biographies of the French statesman Joseph Fouché (1929), Mary Stuart (1935), and others. His stories include those in Verwirrung der Gefhle (1925; Conflicts). He also wrote a psychological novel, Ungeduld des Herzens (1938; Beware of Pity), and translated works of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and mile Verhaeren.

Most recently, his works provided inspiration for the 2014 film ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’

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Review: Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse

This is my first contribution to German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.  Please visit their blogs for more great German Literature in translation and to see the full list of blogs that are participating.

My Review:
Narcissus and GoldmundThis is one of those classic books that is very difficult to review and do it justice because there are so many ideas contained within the book.  It is a coming-of-age story, a commentary on existential philosophy and a beautiful description of a life long friendship.  Narcissus is a teacher’s assistant in the cloister of Mariabronn and fully intends to take his vows as a monk.  Narcissus is a very talented scholar and it is evident that he will one day serve the church and even become the Abbot of the cloister.  He is a cerebral man who values the intellect but his emphasis on the rational also prevents him from having any real friendships or meaningful love in his life.  But this all changes when a young boy by the name of Goldmund is dropped off at the cloister by his father.

Goldmund has been raised solely by his father and his father has done everything in his power to erase Goldmund’s memories of his gypsy mother.  Goldmund’s father drops him off at the cloister with the intention of Goldmund being a pupil and eventually taking a vow to become a monk.  Goldmund’s father tells him that he must dedicate his life to God in order to make up for his mother’s sins.  But Goldmund does not possess the intellectual detachment of Narcissus and love and art and seduction are things which he cannot deny himself in order to become a monk.  Narcissus helps Goldmund realize that cloister life is not for him and when Goldmund learns the pleasures of sex from a gypsy woman he knows that Narcissus is right and he immediately flees the cloister.

Most of the book is a description of Goldmund’s restless journey as a wanderer.  Wherever he stays, whether it be in a modest farmhouse, the castle of a knight or a large city, he manages to satisfy his sexual desires by seducing countless women.  Goldmund is kind and loving and handsome so oftentimes a single look or a caress is enough for a woman to fall in bed with him.  But he never stays in one place long enough to have a lasting and deep friendship like the one he had with Narcissus.  The longest he stays at any place is the Bishop’s city where he becomes an apprentice to a master artist named Niklaus.  Niklaus teaches Goldmund the finer points of sculpting and Goldmund’s greatest masterpiece is a sculpture of St. John that is done in the likeness of his greatest friend Narcissus.  Even though Narcissus and Goldmund are very far apart for many years, their friendship still has a great influence on Goldmund’s life.

Narcissus does come back into Goldmund’s life at a critical point in the book when Goldmund is most in need of help.  Goldmund eventually goes back to live in the cloister as the artist in residence and he works on many sculptures with which to grace the beloved halls of his boyhood home.  Goldmund has had many hardships while on his travels and he puts all of his experiences into his artwork.  There is a heavy emphasis in the book on the close relationship between ecstasy and suffering.  When we give our heart to someone, whether it be a friend, a lover or a relative, we always run the risk of being harmed.  Goldmund had a deep fondness with his mother whom he barely remembers and throughout the book he is looking for that mother-relationship again that made him feel so safe during his very early years.    His culminating sculpture at the monastery, one that he wants to keep to himself and not share, is a mother figure done in the likeness of one of his most influential lovers named Lydia.

Narcissus and Goldmund is a classic novel that I will reach for again and again on my bookshelf.  It is a novel with so many layers that I a sure that each time I reread it I will have new insights and thoughts about this plot.  I look forward to reading another Hesse novel for German Literature month.  What German Literature have you read that you would highly recommend?

German Lit Month

 

About The Author:
HesseHermann Hesse was a German-Swiss poet, novelist, and painter. In 1946, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. His best known works include Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Glass Bead Game (also known as Magister Ludi) which explore an individual’s search for spirituality outside society.

In his time, Hesse was a popular and influential author in the German-speaking world; worldwide fame only came later. Hesse’s first great novel, “Peter Camenzind”, was received enthusiastically by young Germans desiring a different and more “natural” way of life at the time of great economic and technological progress in the country.

Throughout Germany, many schools are named after him. In 1964, the Calwer Hermann-Hesse-Preis was founded, which is awarded every two years, alternately to a German-language literary journal or to the translator of Hesse’s work to a foreign language. There is also a Hermann Hesse prize associated with the city of Karlsruhe,Germany.

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