Tag Archives: German Literature

How Do You Write About Mediocre Books?

There are three books I read over the summer that didn’t inspire me to write complete reviews or posts.  If a book is really not resonating with me then I will abandon it, and I really don’t have the time or energy to waste on negative reviews.  These three titles kept my attention until the end but I would call them mediocre and could not muster enough enthusiasm or words for a full post.  I am very curious to see how other bloggers handle such middle-of-the-road books.

Adua, written by the Somali, Italian author Igiaba Scego and translated by Jamie Richards, moves among three different time periods and two different settings.  The main character, Adua, emigrates from Somalia to Italy and her own story is a mix of her current, unhappy life and flashbacks to her childhood in Somalia.  The third thread in the book deals with the protagonist’s father and his time spent as a servant for a rich Italian who is part of the Italian attempt at colonialism in East Africa just before World War II.  My issue with the book is that I wanted more details about Adua and her father but the plot was too brief to provide the depth of plot and characterization that I craved.  The author could have easily turned this story into three large volumes about Adua’s childhood, her father, and her adult life as an immigrant in Italy.  Adua did prompt me to research and learn more about Italian colonialism in the 20th century but other than that I didn’t have strong feelings about the title after I finished it.

Late Fame, written by Arthur Schnitzler and translated by Alexander Starritt, involves an episode in the life of an older man named Eduard Saxberger who is suddenly reminded of a collection of poetry entitled Wanderings that he had written thirty years earlier and has long forgotten.  A group of Viennese aspiring writers stumble upon Saxberger’s volume in a second hand bookshop and invite him to join their literary discussions at a local café.  Saxberger, although he never married or had a family,  considers his life as a civil servant very successful.  The young poets, whom Schnitzler satirizes as bombastic and overly self-important, stage an evening of poetry readings and drama at which event Saxberger is invited to participate. Saxberger learns that although it is nice to get a little bit of late fame and recognition from this ridiculous group of writers, he made the correct decision in pursuring a different career.  Trevor at Mookse and The Gripes has written a much better review of this book than I could have done and I highly encourage everyone to read his thoughts: http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2017/08/08/arthur-schnitzler-late-fame/

Party Going by Henry Green describes exactly what the title suggests: a group of British upper class men and women are attempting to get to a house party in France but are stuck at the train station in London because of thick fog.  Green’s narrative starts out on a rather humorous note as he describes these ridiculously fussy, British youth.  They panic with what Green calls “train fever” every time they think they are in danger of missing their train.  They fret over their clothes, their accessories, their luggage, their tea and their baths.  As the story progresses they become increasingly mean and petty towards one another which made me especially uncomfortable.  The men are portrayed as idiots and dolts who are easily manipulated by the vain and churlish women.  In the end I found Green’s characters so unpleasant that I couldn’t write an entire post about them.  I’ve read and written some words about his novels Back and Blindness both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I still intend to read all of the reissues of his books from the NYRB Classics selections even though I wasn’t thrilled with Party Going.

So which titles have my fellow readers found mediocre?  Do you bother to write anything about the ones that are just okay?

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Love is War: Penthesilea by Heinrich von Kleist

As I was reading Klest’s tragic play, I kept thinking about Ovid’s imagery in Amores IX in which poem he portrays love as warfare.  The Latin poet writes:

Militat omnis amans, et habet sua castra Cupido;
Attice, crede mihi, militat onmis amans.

Every lover is a soldier, and Cupid has his own camp;
Atticus, believe me, every lover is a soldier.

Ovid proceeds, in the rest of his poem, to lay out the similarities between soldiers and lovers: both must keep up a constant vigil, pass through companies of guards and be willing to fight against challenging obstacles.  Kleist weaves this theme of soldier-as-lover throughout his tragedy, but what is unique to the German writer’s use of this motif is that he applies it to both male and female.

Odysseus and other Greek warriors are the first to appear on stage in the drama.  They describe Penthesilea, this strange Amazon warrior, as a crazed woman who can’t settle on an alliance; she fights both Greeks and Trojans alike.  As the Greeks approach her to make an attempt at an alliance with her Amazon forces, she sees Achilles and can’t take her eyes off of him.  From that moment forward, her greatest desire is to take him as her captive.  But, as the customs of her all-female society are gradually revealed in the play, we understand that her motives for overtaking the Greek hero in battle are unusual—warfare for her is a means to achieving love.

Kleist, in an attempt to build classic dramatic suspense, doesn’t give his main characters any dialogue until the fourth scene of the play during which Achilles finally makes an appearance.  We have been told by the other characters that Achilles has narrowly escaped being overcome by Penthesilea and he is very angry that a woman almost got the better of him.  At this point he has no romantic feelings for this woman, but her attack causes him to go into a rage and he refuses to go back to the Greek camp until he engages her in battle.  Kleist’s speech is a brilliant and emotional inversion of Ovid’s image of lover acting as soldier.  In Achilles speech it is the soldier whose actions resemble that of a lover:

A man I feel myself and to these women,
Though alone of all the host, I’ll stand my ground.
Whether you all here, under cooling pines
Range round them from afar,
Full of impotent lust,
Shunning the bed of battle in which they sport
All’s one to me; by heav’n you have my blessing,
If you would creep away to Troy again.
What that divine maid wants of me, I know it;
Love’s messengers she sends , wings tipp’d with steel,
That bear me all her wishes through the air
And whisper in my ear with death’s soft voice.
I never yet was coy with any girl.

Warfare is described with terms normally associated with love—the bed of battle, for instance—which not only lends emotion to Achilles’s speech, but also foreshadows what will develop between him and Penthesilea.  Later, when he meets her in battle he can’t believe that a woman who can fight with such ferocity and skill exists; it is her prowess as a warrior that causes him to fall in love immediately.  When he wounds Penthesilea in their skirmish, he puts aside his weapons and professes his feelings for her.   He sees in this fierce woman, a soul that is equally as intense and misunderstood as himself.  One of the most shocking declarations Achilles makes in the entire play is to Penthesilea: “Say to her that I love her.” Kleist’s Achilles is just as passionate and emotional as that of Homer’s; what is shocking about this version of Achilles is his declaration of the emotion of love, and for a woman who is not his captive or his prize.

The image of lover-as-soldier and soldier-as-lover also pervade Penthesilea’s speeches and actions.   The very reason she is on the battlefield in the first place is to find a man as a partner.  She explains the savage founding of her female city where men are not allowed to live or fight.  A warlike tribe of Scythians invaded their city, Penthesilea explains, killing all of the men and taking the women as their captives.  After suffering horrible abuse, the women fought off their subjugators and banned all men from the city as the women themselves became fierce warriors.  The Amazons continue the lineage of their city by conquering men in battle, bringing them back to the Temple of Diana  where they mate with the fertile Amazons in what is called the “Feast of the Flowering Virgin.”

Penthesilea by Arturo Michelena, 1891.

 

The war at Troy with the Greeks was the Amazon’s perfect opportunity for subduing soldiers for the annual mating ritual.  Penthesilea doesn’t expect, however, to find such a spectacular hero and mate as Achilles and she is overcome with passion for him to the point of madness.  In an even stranger inversion of Ovid’s poem, the female becomes the soldier of love:

Do I not feel—ah! too accursed I—
While all around the Argive army flees,
When I look on this man, on him alone,
That I am smitten, lamed in my inmost being,
Conquered and overcome—I Only I!
Where can this passion which thus tramples me,
harbor in me, who have no breast for love?
Into the battle will I fling myself;
There with his haughty smile he waits me, there
I’ll see him at my feet or no more live!

Once Achilles and Penthesilea finally meet they confess their deeply intense love for one another.  But an issue as to where they would reside—among the Amazons or back in Greece—causes a misunderstanding that leads to tragedy.  Kleist’s ending for both of these characters varies greatly from that of Homer and the Greek tradition in epic.  I usually find it hard to read sources that alter the Greek tradition, but Kleist’s play preserves the spirit of these fierce warriors and lovers, so I was able to get beyond his changes to their story.  I will end with a line from Ovid’s Amores that sums up what happens to both of these soldiers/lovers:

quosque neges umquam posse iacere, cadunt

Those whom you would never have thought possible to be brought down, they fall.

As a side note, I read the translation by Humphrey Trevelyan that is included in the German Library’s edition of  Kleist’s plays.  I found the archaic language and verse distracting at times.  I just ordered the translation by Joel Agee and published by Harper which is a prose translation with illustrations.  I am very interested in comparing the translations.  Has anyone else read either of these?

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Unlivable Life: No Place on Earth by Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf stuns us with her literary prowess and creative genius in this novella by imagining two talented, tragic, nineteenth century authors meeting at an afternoon tea.  Heinrich von Kleist, who had a military career before embarking on a series of trips throughout Europe, is best known for his dramatic works and novellas.  Karoline von Günderrode, who lived in a convent for unmarried, impoverished, aristocratic women, is best known for her poetry and her dramatic works.  Both Kleist and Günderrode were unlucky in love, prone to depression and anxiety, and committed suicide at a young age. Through the meeting of these two tragic figures Wolf explores the complications that each gender encounters in relation to social pressures and self-identity.

Kleist is accompanied to this afternoon tea by his doctor, Wedekind, who treated him after the author collapsed from a nervous breakdown while he was living in Paris.  Wedekind takes Kleist into his home and attempts to alleviate his severe mental disorder which causes him to have social anxiety, panic attacks, stuttering and excessive sweating.  We are given the impression that Kleist’s outing with Wedekind is meant to serve as some type of therapy for Kleist so that he can practice staying calm and suppressing his anxiety in a social situation.  Kleist is a veritable bundle of nerves and Wolf, by writing the text from the point-of-view of her character’s inner monologue, creates a man whose anxiety is palpable.  Kleist’s thoughts are torturous and never ending:

If there were only some way to turn off the mechanism inside his head, which they had installed there instead of a normal memory, and which, no matter what he does, no matter where he goes or stays, and even during the night, when he starts bolt awake at 4 a.m., is incapable of doing anything but repeating the same train of thought over and over, the same everlasting tormenting monologue which he is forced to conduct on every single one of innumerable days in order to defend himself against invisible accusers.

The other attendees of the tea party attempt to engage Kleist in conversation but the writer struggles to relax and enjoy the party.  He doesn’t mingle with the other guests, but stays in the shadows, along with his doctor, trying to seem as invisible as possible.  Even when Wedekind encourages Kleist to tell a funny anecdote about the doctor’s dog, the exchange with the other guests ends in an awkward scene when the listeners attempt to ask Kleist additional questions about his story.  Kleist does, however, notice an unusual woman also lingering on the edges of the party who seems very different from the other guests, especially the women.

Karoline von Günderrode is invited to the party which is being thrown by a friend of her inner circle.  Wolf portrays her attendance at the tea party as a welcome break from the convent but she, too, is subjected to uncomfortable conversations and awkward exchanges with the other guests, especially the men. Friedrich Carl von Savigny, who is present at the party, has just broken off an affair with Günderrode who is still healing from the experience.  Savigny is there with his wife, the woman whom he chose to marry over Günderrode, and as a further insult and indignity he keeps referring to his former lover as “Günderrode my pet.”  She reminisces in her thoughts about the harsh things he said to her when he ended their relationship.  Savigny, in particular, is upset with the poem she had composed for him:

Undisciplined, unpredictable, inordinate, extreme.  Oh, Savigny.  After all , it was only a poem, even if, admittedly it was too rash, too ungoverned a gesture.  “The Kiss in the Dream.” What could that mean to you just two weeks before your wedding? “A kiss breathed into me the breadth of life…” And I was compelled to add that I no longer knew myself: that’s true.  This is the kind of thing little Günderrode-my-pet dreams about, and of whom does she dream?  Of someone who is very loving and is always loved.

When the members of the party take a walk outdoors, Kleist and Günderrode have already taken notice of one another and begin a conversation about identity and gender roles.  They recognize the struggle against societal expectations with which each contends on a daily basis.  Kleist can be a poet and writer but have no source of income, which is not considered honorable behavior for a man.  Or he can join the military, have a decent salary and deny his creative urges.

Günderrode, as a poor, single woman in 19th century Germany, doesn’t conform to the expectations of her gender any more than Kleist.  Her greatest ambition is to be a writer and when her poetry is published under a pseudonym, she is accused of being too masculine, too learned and arrogant.  Her romantic entanglements with Clemens Brentano and Savigny have also drawn accusations from other women in society that she is a coquette.  According to the expectations of her social circle, she is not acting as a proper female should.

Wolf’s prose is the most poetic and inspiring when she brings the authors together; in a moment of understanding and mutual compassion, they look towards each other and at this point in the text their inner thoughts become the same, they becomes “we”:

They examine each other candidly, without reserve.  Naked gazes.  Self abandonment, a tentative experiment.  Smiles, first hers, then his, ironical.  Let’s pretend it’s a game even if it’s deadly earnest.  You know it, I know it too.  Don’t come too close.  Don’t stay too far away.  Conceal yourself.  Reveal yourself.  Forget what you know.  Remember it.  masks fall away, superincrustations, scabs, varnish.  The bare skin.  Undisguised features.  So that’s my face.  That is yours.  Different down to the ground, alike from the ground up.  Woman.  Man.  Untenable words.  We two, each imprisoned in his sex.

Not long after their encounter Günderrode commits suicide with a dagger that she keeps with her at all times.  Wolf foreshadows the author’s sad end by using words from her own poetry in the text: “Ours is a sad fate.  I envy the rivers which merge.  Death is better than such a life as this.”  Kleist also seems to have had the same opinion about his own life because several years later he meets a sickly woman with whom he commits a murder-suicide.  If these two lost, and lonely souls did really meet, would they have found comfort in one another’s friendship?  Or would seeing and recognizing their own melancholy in one another cause them to run the other way?

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Bitter Healing: Poetry and Letters by Karoline von Günderrode

Karoline von Günderrode was born in 1780 to am impoverished, aristocratic, German family.  At the age of nineteen she went to live in a convent of sorts, the Cronstetten-Hynspergische Evangelical Sisterhood in Frankfur am Main,  which housed poor young woman and widows from upper class families who were waiting for the right man to marry.  While at the convent she was determined to educate herself and began writing poetry, drama and letters.  She spent time with many of the important intellectuals of her day including Clemens Brentano, Goethe, Karl von Savigny, Bettina von Arnim and Friedrich Creuzer  who read her works and gave her feedback.  Christoph von Nees published two volumes of her writings under the pseudonym “Tian” in 1804 and 1805.  In a letter included in the anthology Bitter Healing: German Women Writers 1700-1830, Günderrode responds to Clemens Brentano who has accused her of sounding rather masculine and “too learned” in her poetry:

How I got the idea to have my poems printed, you want to know?  I have always had a secret inclination to do so—why? and what for? I rarely ask myself.  I was very happy when someone was willing to represent me at the publishers.  Easily, an not knowing what I did, I have destroyed that barrier that separated my innermost heart from the world; and I have not regretted it as yet, for always new and alive is my desire to express my life in a permanent form, in a shape worthy of joining the  most excellent minds, greeting them and sharing their society.  Yes, I have always been drawn to that community; it is the church toward which my spirit is continuously making its earthly pilgrimage.

Her intellectual interests, influenced by German Romanticism, are evident in the poetry also translated for this collection.  Themes of nature, love, free will, metaphysics, death and gender roles pervade her verse.  The poem “Once a Dulcet Lie was Mine” begins:

Once a dulcet life was mine,
For I seemed all of a sudden
But a fragrant wisp of cloud;
Nothing to be seen above me
But a deep-blue ocean sea,
And I sailed now here, now younder
Lightly cradled by the waves.

And in “The Prime Lament” she ends with:

Who with all her heart and nature
Came to love a human creature
Ah! is not consoled
By the thought that joys departed
Usher in some newly started—
They can’t match the old.

That sweet state of living, learning
Both accepting and returning
Words and looks and airs,
Eager search and joyous ending,
Sentiment and apprehending,
Not a god repairs.

I found these lines beautiful and haunting in light of her romantic concerns and her death. Most biographies, films and works focus on her affairs with Clemens Brentano, Karl von Savigny and Friedrich Creuzer. Brentano and Savigny loved her and appreciated her intellectual talents but passed Gunderrode over to marry other women. Creuzer was unhappily married to a woman thirteen years his senior, but decided that he could not endure the scandal that would be involved if he left his wife for Günderrode. In 1806 Creuzer broke off their affair in a letter and Günderrode committed suicide by plunging a dagger into her heart which she had reportedly carried with her for many years. Her story sounds like something out of a Greek tragedy and it is not surprising that interest in her has largely been focused on her love affairs and her sad end.  Bettina von Arnim writes about her dear friend’s suicide, the full report of which is also included in the Bitter Healing anthology:

…It is quite impossible for me to write of Gunderrode on the Rhine: it is not that I am so sensitive, but I am on the spot not far enough removed from the occurrence for me perfectly to review it.  Yesterday I went down yonder where she had lain; the willows are so grown that the spot is quite covered; and when I thought how she had run here, full of despair, and so quickly plunged the violent knife into her breast, and how long this idea had burned in her mind, and I , so near a friend, now wandered in the same place, along the same shore, in sweet meditation on my happiness…

The translations included in Bitter Healing are the last few scraps of her work that I could find in English.  There are additional letters and a translation of an “Apocalyptical Fragment” in this anthology and I am hoping that more of her work will continue to be translated into English.

 

 

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Lethe’s Cool Floods: Poetic Fragments by Karoline von Günderrode

As I read the poems and two dramas included in this translation of Poetic Fragments, I couldn’t help but think of a letter that Karoline von Günderrode wrote to her lover Friedrich Creuzer, a German philologist and archaeologist:

I can’t understand the change in your feelings. How often have you told me that my love brightens, enlivens your whole existence, and now you find our relationship damaging. How much would you have given once to win this “damage” for yourself! But that’s the way you [men] are, what you’ve conquered always seems to be lacking….You seem to me like a boatsman to whom I’ve entrusted my whole life, but now the storms are raging, the waves rise up. The winds bring me scattered sounds; I listen and hear how the boatsman takes counsel with his friends whether he shouldn’t throw me overboard or put me ashore on the barren coast?

Although they had a loving, passionate affair and Creuzer was planning to leave his wife for Karoline, the hardships that their relationship caused launched both of them into a depression.  Günderrode committed suicide with a dagger in 1806 after Creuzer broke off their affair via a letter.  The themes of love and death pervade Günderrode’s writing and demonstrate her deep interest in these philosophical concepts. The last stanza of her poem “The Kiss of a Dream” explores that fine line between erotic love and death:

The day is meager in love-sweet delights,
Its light’s vain boats hurt me
And its sun’s blazes consumes me
So hide, eyes, from the luster of the earthly sun!
Wrap yourself in night, it slakes your longing
And heals the pain, like Lethe’s cool floods.

This poem is particularly reminiscent of her letter to Creuzer, although I find the poem more hopeful; Lethe’s floods are soothing and, because of its powers to erase memory, have the ability to ease suffering.

Another intriguing commonality that I found in the additional poems as well as the two plays in this collection are her descriptions of love involving trios.  In the poem entitled “Piedro,” a sailor launches his ship headlong into the waves to retrieve his love that was captured by another man.  In the battle that ensues, Piedro kills a youth with whom he instantly falls in love.  Even though Piedro gets his woman back, he can’t stop thinking about the youth he longs for and decides that the only way to be with him is to take his own life:

Darkness rests upon the waters
Deep silence all around
Piedro’s ship reaches the coast,
But he sleeps deep in the ocean.

The plays in this collection are enchanting in both language and topic.  In Hildgund, the Lord of the Burgundian’s daughter is captured by Attila the Hun and then rescued by her beloved fiancé, Walther of Aquitania.  When Attila threatens to conquer all of Europe unless Hildgund agrees to marry him, she sacrifices herself for the safety of her country.  The play ends abruptly when Hildgund is about to join a wedding party hosted by Attila at which event she has in mind to murder him.  Hildgund is brave, passionate and willing to put herself in danger for Walther.  Günderrode’s speech for Hildgund is courageous and showcases a woman who is not willing to be passive while a man decides her fate:

Oh Walther! Yet you will indeed one day be avenged
And he regret his robbery’s brief joy.
Why do I hesitate, is it, then, too monstrous,
For shy, pale lips to name it?
Murder! Ha, the name alone appalls,
the deed is just, and bold and great,
The peoples’ destiny rests in my breast;
I will free them, free me.
Banished are fear and childish hesitation,
Only a bold warrior wins a great goal.

The final play in this collection, the topic of which I found the most curious, is Muhammad, The Prophet of Mecca.  Günderrode was very interested in the East and chose the struggles of this prophet to write about the afterlife.  The choral odes Günderrode composes  are beautiful and lyrical and worth reading the play just for those interludes.  Muhammad, who is banished from Mecca because of his teachings about one god, tells one of his enemies about the fate of the soul in the afterlife.  Once again, I find the tone of Günderrode’s writing positive and uplifting:

Mohammand: The soul of man does not die with the death of the body; it abandons it when its life has ended, and if it is the soul of a pious person then it climbs aloft in the space of the stars and creates itself a body out o fair; this new body has all senses like the previous, only in a yet higher degree; it never gets tired, knows no pain and is full of eternal health, life and youth.

Most of the literature that has been written about Günderrode has focused on her love affair with Creuzer, her personal letters and her tragic end.  She was, however, a talented poet, philosopher and dramatist whose work is virtually unknown to the English speaking world.  This dual language edition of Poetic Fragments, translated with introductory essays by Anna Ezekiel, focuses on Günderrode’s contribution to philosophy and literature of the German Romantic movement.  I highly recommend this book for both the translations and Ezekiel’s insightful essays and comprehensive bibliography.  I am disappointed that most of Günderrode’s writing has not been translated into English as this publication has made me want to read all of her literature.

Karoline von Günderrode, c. 1800, by an anonymous painter; Historical Museum, Frankfurt am Main

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