Tag Archives: German Literature

The Ear and the Heart Know: An Interview with Translator Alexander Booth

Alexander Booth is a writer and translator who lives in Berlin.  A recipient of a 2012 PEN Heim Translation Fund Grant for translations from the German poetry of Lutz Seiler, his poems and translations have appeared online and in print at Asymptote, Dear Sir, FreeVerse, Konundrum and Modern Poetry in Translation. In addition, when he lived in Rome he kept a weblog on (mostly) Rome in literature and Roman literature, Misera e stupenda città. His work can also be found on his website Wordkunst. His translation of Lutz Seiler’s collection of poetry entitled in English in field latin was published in 2016 by Seagull Books.  I conducted this interview via e-mail in March and April of 2017.

Melissa Beck (MB): How did you come to translate Lutz Seiler’s collection of poetry for publication by Seagull Books?

Alexander Booth (AB):I began translating Seiler’s poetry in 2011, just a few days after first reading his work. I was still living in Rome at the time and was in the old Herder Bookshop on Piazza Montecitorio and picked up his first collection of poetry for Suhrkamp, pech & blende. It was electrifying. I read the whole thing through on my bus ride home. I felt such an affinity to the work that I knew I had to try. And so I looked for his latest, which was in felderlatein (in field latin), ordered it, and got started. After having some of those first translations published by the UK journal Modern Poetry in Translation rather early on, I decided to keep going and then applied for a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant, which, to my great surprise, I was awarded in 2012. And from there I went on to complete the whole collection. However, being a complete unknown and not having any connections to any publishers at the time, it was impossible for me to get through to anyone. As you can well imagine, poetry in translation is a much harder sell than a novel in translation, indeed almost impossible, and I was attempting to do so completely on my own. Be that as it may, around the end of 2014 (I’d relocated to Germany the previous year), I got an email from Lutz (whom I had gotten to know by then) and one from Nora Mercurio, Suhrkamp’s foreign rights manager, saying that they had exciting news: the wonderful and wonderfully unexpected gift that Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books was interested in taking on the manuscript! I couldn’t believe it. I really had more or less given up on finding in field latin a home anywhere. And now here we are in 2017 and I’m working on my fourth book for Seagull, which still surprises me when I think about it. I am very lucky, humbled, and honored to be, and to have been, able to work with such great people.

MB: What in particular about Seiler’s poetry compelled you to translate it?

AB: Well, again, I felt such an immediate affinity to his whole approach, his musicality, his eye, and felt that it just had to be available to an Anglophone audience and, rather selfishly too, that my own poems might benefit from doing the work; furthermore, I wanted to live in that world for a spell, there was something there I needed to touch, something there seemed familiar somehow. Something perhaps in that “concentrated absence” as he calls it. It is indeed an extremely rare occurrence to read something and physically feel it surge through you. Its singular song. Reading Seiler’s poems was one of those moments. “The ear knows” as the poet George Oppen said. Here I’d add the heart too.

MB: You have a lovely mention of your mother in the acknowledgements. How did she influence your decision to become a translator? Do you work with her often?

AB: That is kind of you to say, thank you. Well, I never really made any conscious decision to be a translator, as is the case with most translators I think, it just kind of happened. In fact, as a child, many people said that I had no real talent for foreign languages, and, to be honest, I don’t think I showed all that much interest either! That changed with my discovery of Italian, however, and, in particular, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s translations of a selection of poems by the great Pier Paolo Pasolini. Some years later I began to translate poetry on my own, poets with whom I felt an affinity, poets I felt might help me with my own work (especially when, to paraphrase the poet Charles Wright, I was in between poems) or just plain excited me (for example, Hölderlin, the later Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Friederike Mayröcker, Sandro Penna); then, for extra money, I would do academic translations. Moving to Germany at the end of 2013, for various reasons I found myself doing more and more translation work and now find myself even doing novels!

But to return to my mother: over the years we have developed a lovely relationship through my work with some rather challenging writers; in Seiler’s case, she helped a lot with some of the rural and/or East German expressions/language that has remained fairly similar over time (my mother originally comes from Upper Silesia, in Prussia, and grew up in the country as her father was a forester; Lutz Seiler also comes from a rural environment). She is such an inquisitive person and loves to have me ask her questions and over the last few years in particular, since the death of my father, we have developed an even closer relationship through my translations. In fact, having been a witness to my work over the last fifteen years or more, she says she actually reads differently now, thinks about the written word differently, which is an immense compliment. When I get to visit her in the States or she comes back here to Europe, we get the tea ready, then she sits down with her crosswords or journals or what-have-you, and I get to translating and when something comes up, I ask her. Of course I send emails too if need be. In ways, through translating, I was able to get closer to my mother and to some of her interior landscape and, I think, she was able to get to closer to me and mine. That in itself makes the process worthwhile, no? How many people get that kind of opportunity? And it is this aspect of translation, this sometimes disorienting, sometimes rather unsettling sense of inhabitation (and, at times, possession), that intensity, that remains one of the most intriguing and rewarding aspects of the whole process for me. I hope it is so for the reader too.

MB: Are there one or two poems in the collection that you found particularly difficult to translate into English? Are there any pieces of the poems that you felt got lost in the translation?

AB: Oh goodness, yes, there are a few and there are certainly some things that got lost. I think with someone like Seiler, in particular the poetic nexus of individual words, certain phrases, their echoes are so numerous and reverberate not only throughout German culture and history but much of Seiler’s other work that there is no possible way they can be carried over. Furthermore, the point/port of entry into some of the poems is very difficult to locate indeed. So, in the end, I added some notes where I thought it might help and simply let it go where I saw little point.

MB: Is there anything particularly interesting or surprising that you found out about Seiler as you were translating his poetry?

AB: I learned that he was a Pink Floyd fan when he was younger! That was a real shock. Sorry, in all seriousness: learning that one of his favorite poets was Ernst Meister (Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick have done excellent English translations of his work for Wave Books) certainly made a lot of sense though, in the end, I’m not sure if that surprised me too much. All the same, it’s an insight that helps to explain a fair amount, even though Seiler is a very different poet.

On a purely personal note that doesn’t really have anything to do with his poems, however, (though you’ll find an allusion to it in one of his stories), I was surprised to learn over a beer with him that he had been a bartender at one of the first bars to appear in East Berlin after reunification, a basement bar near the Museum Island on Oranienburger Straße called Assel (pill bug – sadly, no longer there). Now, that was a bar I used to love to go to whenever I was in Berlin. It was a strange connection. One of those times you think: “Of course he did.” And to realize that he had been in Rome at the Villa Massimo at the same time I was still living there and had begun translating his poems. It seemed to me then that our work together was fated!

One thing I really like about Seiler’s work is that, the deeper you go into it, the more you see how all of it really is connected: all the poems are woven into one another and into the short stories and here and there into the novel and each sheds a certain light on the other. There is no sense whatsoever of “the writer of the poem” as distinct from Seiler. The personal is universal and, as continues to be said, most certainly political. All these fragments making up the greater narrative of the man himself and the time, the place, of which he is part.

MB: Can you discuss some of the current stylistic trends in contemporary German poetry and how Seiler embraces or rejects these trends?

AB: Well, to be rather reductive, it seems to me that there are more or less two poles here (though you could probably say as much for the States too): the quiet, “straightforward” narrative (when not “nature”) poem and a more “experimental”, what I’d be tempted to call a kind of “neo-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” sort of approach to writing. Maybe this will seem evasive or intentionally vague, but I don’t think Seiler explicitly embraces or rejects either nor would he be particularly interested in championing any one tendency over another; acknowledging and incorporating all of his—not only—poetic inheritances he has created his own subtle and singular style: at times dark, it is ecologically aware, haunted, highly personal, historical, syntactically strange, and uniquely lyrical. In short, it is undeniably his own. I don’t think there are too many poets, or writers in general actually, you could say that about today. Before you even reach the end of the first line you know you are in a Lutz Seiler poem.

MB: What translation projects are you currently working on?

AB: My translation of the Gunther Geltinger’s neo-Gothic, experimental novel Moor was published last month by Seagull Books and my translation of Friedrich Ani’s dark, psychological “crime” novel The Nameless Day will be coming out with them this winter. I’ve also just finished translating an art book for Suhrkamp called Berlin Heartbeats: Stories from the Wild Years, 1990-Present, which contains photographs and interviews with a number of important cultural figures from around the time of German reunification (Klaus Biesenbach, Frank Castorf, Sasha Walz, etc.). In addition, I am translating two poems for a trilingual anthology (Chinese – English – German) responding to a poem by the (late) American poet C.D. Wright being put together by the young poet Dong Li. I have also just begun translating a novel by the German-Iranian writer and Orientalist Navid Kermani, which is very interesting indeed, suffused as it is with references to and quotes from Persian poets such as Attar, Ibn Arabi, and Nizami. Quite a challenge. And last but not least, I am working here and there on a fascinating, experimental novel of “journal sentences” by the writer Jürgen Becker, an excerpt of which appeared in the latest issue of Chicago Review.

 

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Filed under Author Interviews, German Literature, Poetry, Seagull Books

Review: in field latin by Lutz Seiler translated by Alexander Booth

Lutz Seiler was born in the former East Germany in the Langenberg district of Gera, Thuringia.  He first had a career as a skilled construction worker as both a bricklayer and carpenter.  It was during his service in the National People’s Army that he first took an interest in poetry and literature. Since 1997 he has been the literary director and custodian at the Peter Huchel Museum in Wilhelmshorst.  He has won numerous awards for his writing including the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for his short story volume Turksib.

in field latin, published by Seagull Books in 2016, is Seiler’s debut volume of poetry translated into English.  Divided into seven sections which include between one and eleven poems, this collection gives us an interesting glimpse into life in the former East Germany via lyrics that describe landscapes, personal reflections and ghosts.

The most striking images that Seiler weaves throughout this collection are those of nature; in the first poem, entitled “Departure” he invites us into his bucolic world:

bed against window, the trip
into the wood, ever more softly
shifting gears & sleep: every

dream begins uphill, at the fence
onto the street where
someone squats like you, where

the resinous poppy with its
capsules clings to your ears, where
above already blossom edges have

gone to grey…leaf
after leave put into place
& uncompleted sent away.

The short, startling lines in this first poem are typical for the entire collection where images of reality and dreams are mingled and blurred.  His poetry is both personal reflection but also captures the universal feeling of calm while walking in the woods in autumn.  In “autumn” he writes:

is silence & custom. autumn
is rake, wood, is a mild
chill upon the eyes &

unexpected gooseflesh.  is also
the good old ready-to-fight feeling, soft, secret, skull-still
designs maturing.  the leaves all burnt, sand

still warm beneath the ashes, you
feel it now upon your hand: something
wants to flee &something never leave…

The ghosts of the past, both personal and political, also pervade his poetry.  The phrase “all the wasted time” in the following poem entitled “the stay” in particular stood out to me as an interesting commentary on the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of his country:

one evening they came
the dead of my house
back from the train-station.  one

after the other, with
balled fists, reminiscent
of tulips in their

nigh-reserve, reminiscent,
in the long being-dead, of all
the wasted time.

In a poem entitled “culmitzsch” Seiler weaves together images of landscapes, ghosts and life in the former East Germany.  The translator includes some excellent and helpful notes in the back of this edition and for this poem he explains that Culmitzch was a village in the GDR whose inhabitants were forced to move in order to make room for one of that former country’s largest uranium mines.  Seiler’s poem about this abandoned place is chilling:

in the evening the sheep go rusty
over the wasted land, birds
as if snowed therein & darkened…

only under the rubble
the farmyards are still warm.  the spoons
there by the spoons, the polish
by the boots & that little door
to the boot-room which moves you
to tears…

As always, Seagull Books has brought into English translation a fascinating collection of poetry.  I had the opportunity to interview Alexander Booth, the translator of this collection which can be read here.

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Filed under German Literature, Poetry, Seagull Books

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