Tag Archives: German Literature

Review: Cassandra by Christa Wolf

This title was published in 1983 in the original German and this English version has been translated by Jan van Heurck

My Review:
cassandraCassandra is most famous in Greek mythology for possessing the gift of prophecy but this unique gift came with one problem: no one ever believes her true predictions.  In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, Cassandra says that she agreed to have sex with the God Apollo in exchange for the gift of prophecy, but when she went back on her promise and refused the Sun God’s advances, Apollo made sure that her prophecies would never be believed.  When she predicts the future her friends and family treat her as nothing more than a babbling and a raving mad woman.  I have a distinct memory of first translating the Agamemnon and how difficult Aeschylus’s Greek is to unpack.  But the parts in the narrative in which Cassandra is speaking were a nice break because oftentimes she just rants and raves; the various “oi” and “oimoi” noises she makes are a welcome respite from the complex grammatical structures of Aeschylus’s sentences.

Christa Wolf’s Cassandra is an ambitious novel in that it tries to cover the entire scope of the Trojan epic cycle by telling it through the eyes of this doomed and unlucky Trojan princess.  Priam, Hecuba, Helenus, Achilles, Aeneas, Troilus, Briseis, Calchas, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Polyxena and Paris, are just a few of the characters that make an appearance or are mentioned in Wolf’s narrative.  Cassandra, the narrator of this story,  is the daughter of Priam, King of Troy, and his first and most favored wife, Hecuba.  From a very young age Cassandra wants nothing more than to become a priestess of the God Apollo and possess the gift of prophecy.  But once she is given this gift she is subjected to a plethora of other misfortunes which lead to her tragic death.  Wolf’s narrative is so wide-ranging and covers so many characters and actions from the Trojan saga that it is impossible to mention everything she touches on in one review.  So I am going to write about the aspects of Wolf’s story that were the most striking and memorable for me.

In the original myths and stories involving the origin of the Trojan War, Paris, the prince of Troy, visits King Menelaus of Sparta and with the help of the Goddess Aphrodite, absconds with his wife Helen.  In order to get his wife back, Menelaus asks his warmongering brother, King Agamemnon of Mycenae, to help him get an army together, sack Troy, and find his wife.  Wolf makes her story less a matter of love, pride and recapturing a straying wife and instead makes the inception of the war more of a political issue.  Priam’s sister has been taken by the Greeks and there are three separate, and unsuccessful expeditions to bring her back; on the third and final ship, Paris sets sail with the other men and when he cannot get his aunt back he takes Menelaus’s wife instead.  Paris is portrayed as an arrogant and brash young man who uses the pretext of the expedition to take for himself a woman who is said to be the most beautiful in the world.  Christa’s Paris is much more bold than Homer’s Paris, but in both tales Paris has no forethought or concern for anyone other than himself.

When the Greeks attack Troy, Cassandra has already seen this event coming and predicted that it will destroy her home and her family.  She has a dream when she is a child that Apollo spits in her mouth and this is the sign that she can foretell the future but no one will believe her.  When she has one of her prophetic visions she foams at the mouth, has fits that mimic the symptoms of a seizure and drives everyone away from her because they think she is a babbling lunatic.  Cassandra’s narrative about her childhood, how she acquired her gift of prophesy, the destruction of Troy and its aftermath are all told in a stream-of-conscious narrative.  Wolf’s Cassandra constantly moves around between different time periods and this cleverly reflects the anxious ramblings of her tormented mind.  She oftentimes dwells on her earlier years when she was first given the ability to prophesy and became a priestess of the God Apollo.  She is King Priam’s favorite daughter and her position as favorite as well as her ability to predict the future cause her to have complicated relationships with her siblings, her mother, and other men in her life.

When Troy is sacked, all of the Trojan women who survive are divided up among the Greek Kings and taken back to Greece to become their household and sexual slaves.  Cassandra is taken back to Mycenae by King Agamemnon and her interactions with this narcissistic man cause her to reflect on the other complicated relationships she has had with men throughout her life.   Wolf portrays Cassandra as having a great desire to be a priestess of Apollo and remain a virgin, but even her desire to remain untouched is conflicted.  There is a strange scene that Wolf includes in which all of the young women in Troy are placed within the sanctuary of a temple and one by one they are chosen by Trojan youth for a ritual deflowering.  It is oftentimes the tendency for non-Greek, Eastern cultures to be portrayed as being more sexually open and even promiscuous.  In the Ancient Greek myths Priam is basically described as possessing a harem with multiple wives and fifty children. Even though this is not necessarily emphasized in Homer, Wolf seems to pick up on the sexual differences between the Greeks and the Trojans.  When Cassandra does finally become a priestess, she puts up with the head priest visiting her nightly for sexual trysts and she endures it because she pretends she is sleeping with Aeneas whom she loves very much.

Cassandra views Agamemnon as a self-centered, rash and dangerous man who is also sexually impotent.  In Cassandra’s eyes Achilles is not any better a man than Agamemnon and  she describes Achilles as a murderous, selfish brute who takes what he wants, including Cassandra’s sister Polyxena.  The only male in the story that Cassandra has any positive thoughts for is Aeneas, a Trojan youth who is the only hero to escape from Troy when it is burning.  In the ancient Greek myths Aeneas and Cassandra are cousins but they don’t have any real connections other than Cassandra’s prediction that Aeneas will escape Troy.  I am curious as to why Wolf chose Aeneas at the only male in the Trojan saga with any redeemable characteristics.  The depressed, hopeless, confused, Cassandra in Wolf’s narrative becomes a completely different person when Aeneas is around.  The only time when Cassandra has positive, loving thoughts are when she is around Aeneas:

At the new moon Aeneas came…I saw his face for only a moment as he blew out the light that swam in a pool of oil beside the door.  Our recognition sign was and remained his hand on my cheek, my cheek in his hand.  We said little more to each other than our names; I had never heard a more beautiful love poem.  Aeneas Cassandra.  Cassandra Aeneas.  When my chastity encountered his shyness, our bodies went wild.  I could not have dreamed what my limbs replied to the questions of his lips, or what unknown inclinations his scent would confer on me.  And what a voice my throat had at its command.

One final male in the story that is not portrayed in a positive light is Hector, the prince of Troy and first son and heir of King Priam.  In the Iliad he is, I would argue, the most heroic of the men on either side because he has a sense of honor and courage that no other warrior possesses.  So I was disappointed that Wolf refers to him as “Dim-Cloud” and Cassandra remarks, “A number of my brothers were better suited than he to lead the battle.”  To have veered so far off the mark from the Hector of the Iliad was disappointing to me.

When I teach about the God Apollo and Cassandra and her doomed gift of prophecy, my students always have a hard time with the fact that time and again Cassandra prophesies the truth but not a single person ever believes her.  My interpretation of Cassandra has always been that she represents that person who tells us the very thing we don’t want to hear about ourselves or our actions that we continue to ignore.  Cassandra is the classic case of being mad at and ignoring the person who tells us the truth and is honest but who we will cast aside anyway because the truth is too hard to bear.  Wolf writes a spectacular rendition of  Cassandra and brings to the forefront this allegory of ignoring our better judgement and the better judgement of others and suffering the negative consequences for it.

I could really go on and on about my impressions of Wolf’s writing and her exploration of the Trojan saga through the eyes of Cassandra.  I would love to hear what other readers have thought about this book.  What were the most memorable parts of the book for you?  Had you read any of the original myths before encountering this books?  Why do you think Wolf chose Aeneas as a companion for Cassandra?  What do you think of Wolf’s rendition of Cassandra?

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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Filed under German Literature, Historical Fiction, Literature in Translation, Uncategorized

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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Filed under Classics, German Literature, Novella, Pushkin Press

Review: The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift

I received a review copy of this title from Peirene Press.  The book was published in the original German in 2007 and this English version has been translated by Jamie Bulloch.

My Review:
the-empress-and-the-cakeThis psychological thriller starts innocently enough with a kind old woman offering to split a cake with a young woman she meets outside of a bakery in Vienna.  But Stift’s novella becomes gruesome, disturbing and haunting very quickly.

The old woman, whose name is Frau Hohenembs, is oddly dressed in all black and the young woman discovers that the old woman’s apartment is even stranger.  Frau Hohenembs has an extensive collection of pictures and mementos of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria or Empress Sissi as many referred to her.  The apartment is also packed with furniture, two caged parrots, an enormous dog and a portly servant named Ida. The young woman patiently observes these strange women while she has tea and eats her share of Gugelhupf.  The first shocking twist in the book happens when the young woman returns home to her own flat, finishes the rest of her Gugelhupf as well as everything else in her refrigerator and forces herself to throw up the entire contents of her stomach.

googlehupf_10564761126

        Gugelhopf Photo by Dirk Vorderstraße

There are two eerie and gruesome threads that run throughout the story, the first of which is an obsession with food, weight and vomiting. Stift vividl describes the narrator’s grisly decent into the full grip of bulimia and her constant obsession with the cycle of binging and purging:

I was learning a new vomiting technique and was eating by colours.  I started with chemical sweets such as bright-green gummy frogs or pink foam bacon bits or claret so-called laces and snakes.  These took time to mix with the mush of food that followed, which meant that my vomiting could be monitored.  I would puke until I’d arrived at this tough, lurid mass, so I could be sure I’d got everything out.

The narrator also weighs herself incessantly every few minutes on a pair of scales she purchases.  She becomes obsessive about her weight and the size of her stomach.  She is so consumed with food and vomiting that she stops working and only goes out of her flat every few days to go on a grocery shopping binge.  She reveals throughout the course of the story that her mother and maternal grandfather also had an unnatural preoccupation with being thin and this fixation on weight affected her from a  very early age.  Her deep-seated psychological issues make her easy prey for the manipulative and controlling Frau Hohenembs.

Empress Sissi 1862 by Ludwig Angerer

       Empress Sissi 1862 by Ludwig Angerer

The second theme that is woven throughout the narrative is that of control, both losing it and gaining it over others.  Frau Hohenembs has an obsession with the Empress Sissi and pulls the young narrator into her plots to steal relics and artifacts that once belonged to the Empress.  Frau Hohenembs first invites the narrator to a picnic after which they take a bizarre tour through a sex museum.  Stift is a master at slowly developing the ways in which the older woman gains control over the younger woman’s life.  At first she can’t say no to innocent outings that involve picnics and museums.  The next significant turning point in this disturbing relationship is when Frau Hohenembs uses the young woman to steal a duck press from another museum in Vienna.  This rather macabre kitchen instrument is used to squeeze the blood, bone marrow and other juices out of duck carcasses. Frau Hohenembs loves to drink the meat juices extracted from the press and throughout the novel she has Ida use the press so that she can always have her favorite drink on hand.

Frau Hohenembs uses this theft of the duck press to gain more control over the narrator’s life.  She tells the young woman that if she doesn’t go on outings with her or help her out on her secret missions then she will report her to the police.  Frau Hohenembs becomes progressively sinister and appears to have connections around Vienna that would help her to have the young woman prosecuted.  The final, and most disturbing, theft that the trio carry out is stealing a cocaine syringe that belonged to the Empress Sissi from a pathology museum in Vienna.  Frau Hohenembs then instructs the young woman on how to use it properly to inject the old woman with daily doses of cocaine.

By the end of the novella, the young narrator is trapped and completely controlled, not only by her eating disorder but also by this strange old woman and her maid.  Straft is a master at building suspense and presenting an unexpected and frightening conclusion to her psychological thriller.

This is the third and final installment in the Peirene Fairy Tale series.  All three books in the collection are very different but are all excellent.  I don’t think I can choose a favorite from the series.  I have also reviewed the other two Fairy Tale books:

https://thebookbindersdaughter.com/2016/06/13/review-her-fathers-daughter-by-marie-sizun/

https://thebookbindersdaughter.com/2016/02/21/review-the-man-i-became-by-peter-verhelst/

About the Author:
l-stiftLinda Stift in an Austrian writer. She was born in 1969 and studied Philosophy and German literature. She lives in Vienna. Her first novel, Kingpeng, was published in 2005. She has won numerous awards and was nominated for the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2009.

 

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Filed under German Literature, Literature in Translation, Novella

Review: Sebastian Dreaming by Georg Trakl

I received a review copy of this title from Seagull Books.  These poems have been translated from the original German into this English version by James Reidel.

My Review:
sebastian-dreamingGeorg Trakl died from a cocaine overdose while recovering from a nervous breakdown in a military hospital during World War I.  He was awaiting the proofs of Sebastian Dreaming which he had requested despite the fact that the publication of this collection was put off indefinitely because of The Great War.  Sebastian Dreaming was the second, and final collection that was prepared for publication by the author himself and James Reidel’s translation of this collection is the first that has appeared in English in its entirety.  Although some of the poems have appeared in other collections, the translator has argued that these poems ought to be read as part of this single collection, which is what Trakl himself intended.

In my review of Trakl’s  first collection of poems that was also published by Seagull Books and translated by James Reidel, I argued that, although Trakl’s struggle against depression and despair is evident, an underlying sense of triumph against these demons lingers; Trakl does not let his feelings of dejection overwhelm or destroy him.  Not yet, anyway.    But Sebastian’s Dreaming, which contains more overwhelming images of decay and dying, foreshadows Trakl’s impending overdose which many speculate was a suicide;  by the time this collection was composed he had finally been overwhelmed and defeated by his emotional disturbances, excessive indulgences in drugs and alcohol and the incestuous relationship he shared with his sister.  In short, the tone of these poems is more deeply melancholic than those in the previous collection.  In  Dream and Benightment he writes:

O, cursed breed.  When every fate is consummated in filthy
rooms, death enters the household with mouldering footsteps.
O, that spring was outside and a lovely bird might sing in
the blossoming tree.  But the sparse green withers grey at
the window of those who come by night  and the bleeding
hearts still think about evil.

The collection is divided into five sections, the titles of which suggest something of a final scene, before the curtain of his life has fallen: “Sebastian Dreaming”, “The Autumn of One Alone”, “Song Septet of Death”, “Song of the Solitary,” and “Dream of Benightment.”   In the poem Passion there exists a struggle against nature and our natural surroundings which bring about our inevitable demise.  Orpheus, who was torn apart by wild beasts as he sings a lament for his lost wife, is an apt figure for the destruction that passion can wreak on a human soul:

When Orpheus strums the lyre silver,
Lamenting one dead in the evening garden,
Who are you, one reposed, under towering trees?
The autumn reeds rustle with the lament,
The blue pond,
Dying away under greening trees
And following the shadow of the sister;
Dark love
of a wild kind,
For whom the day rushes by on golden spokes.
Silent night.

Anyone familiar with Trakl’s complicated relationship with his sister Grete can’t help but notice the proximity of the word sister to those of Dark love/of a wild kind.

I found it interesting to learn from reading an introduction to Reidel’s  manuscript,  Some Uncommon Poems and Versions,  that the Austrian pediatrician who lends his name to the disorder believed that Trakl displayed the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome.  Trakl’s poetry demonstrates two of the hallmark symptoms of this syndrome:  a gift with language and an emotional remoteness.  As an expressionist poet it is natural that his poetic landscape is full of this movement’s angst, interactions with nature and vivid colors.  But after reading Reindel’s comment about Asperger’s Syndrome I viewed his poems with a different eye, one towards someone who has difficulty with intimate connections and certain emotional cues.  Trakl never tells us he is melancholy or sad or overcome with despair.  But instead he describes Love as a pink angel appearing quietly to a boy or Joy as an evening sonata playing in cool rooms.

Finally, I would like to mention the pervasive use of colors in this collection.  The pages are consumed with the various shades that Trakl sees in nature.  Colors play an interesting role in expressing our emotions; we wear black at a funeral and a red dress to a festive party.  Different colors are associated with different holidays and seasons.  Trakl’s uses of color in his poetry brought to mind the vivid and bright pieces of the Expressionist painters.  Perhaps color was the best way that Trakl knew how to deal with and process his complicated emotional struggles.  He writes about a “blue soul” and a “black silence” in Autumn Soul.  The poem By Night contains a different color in each line that captures the mood of what could be the beginning of a passionate night:

The blue of my eyes is put out in this night.
The red gold of my heart.  O! How still burns the candle.
Your blue mantel enfolds the one falling;
Your red mouth seals the friend’s benightment.

Seagull Books will publish one final collection of poetry in the Trakl series.  I look forward to reading that collection and comparing it with the previous two volumes.

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 German Literature, Poetry, Seagull Books

Review-A Whole Life: A Novel by Robert Seethaler

I received a review copy of this title from Farrar, Straus & Giroux via Netgalley. The book was published in the original German in 2014 and this English version has been translated by Charlotte Collins.

My Review:
a-whole-lifeWe are first introduced to Andres Egger in 1933 when he has had an unexplained instinct to pay a visit to his elderly neighbor, Horned Hannes.  Hannes is a reclusive goatherd who lives in the same Austrian mountain village as Egger and when Egger finds the old man he is barely alive.  Egger attempts to carry the goatherd on his back down the mountain but in a fit of madness due to his fever the goatherd runs off into the snow never to be seen again.  Between the time that Egger loses the goatherd while carrying him down the mountain and the goatherd’s petrified body is found forty years later on a mountain ledge, we are told the story of Egger’s whole life.

From the beginning of the book there is a sense of foreboding and ill omen.  As Egger is struggling down the mountain side with the goatherd strapped to his back they engage in an eerie conversation about death.  Horned Hannes tells Egger:  “People say death brings forth new life, but people are stupider than the stupidest nanny goat.  I say death brings forth nothing at all!  Death is the Cold Lady.”  This discussion of death hangs over the entire story like a dark storm cloud.  Egger’s tragic beginnings as an orphaned child further serve to set the tone as one of tragedy and misfortune.

Egger is orphaned as a small boy of four when his mother dies of consumption and he is sent to live with a distant relative.  The relative, a farmer named Hubert Kranzstocker, took pleasure in beating the small boy with a hazel rod for the slightest indiscretions like spilling his dinner.  Kranzstocker is so brutal in his beatings that he breaks the boy’s leg and causes Egger to have a limp for the rest of his life.  The author builds sympathy for this boy throughout the first part of the narrative: “To all intents and purposes he was not seen as a child.  He was a creature whose function was to work, pray, and bare his bottom for the hazel rod.”  To an outsider looking in, this wretched boy who is given no love and no warm place to call his own is deserving of the utmost pity;  but Egger himself would never think to waste a single moment on self-pity.  He stoically accepts what fate has to offer him and he does the best he can given his awful fate.

When Egger finally breaks free of his abusive relative at the age of eighteen he supports himself by taking on odd jobs and he saves up to buy himself a small piece of land on the mountain.  His earthly possessions are meager but they are his pride and joy because he bought them with his own earnings and he can make what he wants out of them.  The most sentimental thing that he owns is the gate that leads onto his property; one day he hopes to open the gate to a real visitor so he can show someone what he has made of the place.  This is a subtle hint that although Egger doesn’t complain about his isolation from the rest of the village, he still experiences loneliness and longs for some human contact and intimacy.  His visitor finally does come, in the form of a woman as gentle and brave as Egger himself.  But once again, cruel fate has other circumstances in store for Egger.

Egger eventually gets a regular job helping to build cable cars that will ferry tourists up to the top of the mountain.  He has conflicting emotions about his job because although it does provide him with a steady and respectable income, he doesn’t like cutting down trees and disturbing the natural landscape of his beloved mountain.  Egger recognizes the tension that his mountain must feel as each piece of rock is blasted from her façade and each precious tree is felled from her forest.  There is a hint in the text that the destruction caused by avalanches that occasionally happen on the mountain are mother nature’s way of exacting her revenge.

Through the years Egger continues to work hard and survive the best way that he knows how.  He has an adventure during World War II when, after fighting for only a couple of months, he is captured by the Russians and lives for years in a prison camp.  Even while he is in the camp Egger never complains about his fate.  As long as there is enough work in the camp to keep him busy then his mind is able to endure much more hardship than most.  And looking back on his life, perhaps it is the misery of Egger’s early years that have helped him to become strong and to even survive the hunger, disease and cold of a Russian prison camp.

The author’s simple prose is fitting for the life of this simple man; Egger’s story is emotionally jarring yet uplifting at the same time.  When the book comes to its end Egger has lived to be almost eighty years old and he has no regrets in his whole life:  “He had never felt compelled to believe in God, and he wasn’t afraid of death.  He couldn’t remember where he had come from, and ultimately he didn’t know where he would go.  But he could look back without regret on the time in between, his life, with a full-throated laugh and utter amazement.”

About the Author and Translator:
r-seethalerRobert Seethaler was born in Vienna in 1966 and is the author of four previous novels. He also works as an actor, most recently in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth. He lives in Berlin.

 

Charlotte Collins studied English at Cambridge University. She worked as an actor and radio journalist in both Germany and the U.K. before becoming a literary translator. She previously translated Robert Seethaler’s novel The Tobacconist.

 

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Filed under German Literature, Literature in Translation, Novella