Tag Archives: German Literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quiet Failure: Stories by Gottfried Keller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

Effi Briest, the tragic, eponymous heroine of Fontane’s novel, is the only child of a  German aristocratic couple living on an idyllic country estate outside of Berlin.  When Effi is seventeen years old, she is married off to Baron Geert von Innstetten who is twenty years her senior.  In addition to the age gap, their very different views on life doom the marriage from achieving any peace and contentment from the start.

When we first meet Effi she is playing in the garden on her parent’s estate, her favorite place in the world.  Effi loves nature and is a carefree spirit who always laughing and taking great delight in socializing with her family and friends.  An hour before she is engaged to Innstetten she is playing tag in the yard with her three best friends.  When she is introduced to her finance, she is excited at the prospect of marrying a man who is ambitious and will provide a good life for her.  Innstetten is a Landrat in Kessin, a senior politician that oversees a large rural population.  But during their engagement there are hints at the aloofness of her future husband in the letters he sends to her.  Effi mentions to her mother that “most of what he writes I could put on the noticeboard at the town hall where his official announcements are posted.  Geert isn’t a Landrat for nothing.”  Effi’s statement is a perfect example of Fontane’s subtle and allusive narrative—we are given hints about the great contrast between Effi’s needs and Geert’s inability to fulfil those desires.

When Effi moves to Innstetten’s home in Pomerania, she is still very much childlike and innocent.  She is oftentimes frightened by noises she hears in her new home and an old legend about the previous owner and his “Chinaman” adds to her terror.  The local Prussian nobility is unwelcoming and aloof and, except for a town chemist who is especially warm and kind to her, Effi is socially isolated.  Innstetten is oftentimes away fulfilling his administrative duties and when he does spend time with his wife he only gives her “one or two tired if well-intended caresses.”  She is oftentimes unhappy and doesn’t realize that it is due to the fact that her marriage has failed to satisfy her emotionally or physically.   It is no big surprise that Effi engages in a brief yet passionate love affair with Major Crampas, a reputed womanizer who is more passionate and expressive than her husband.

But Effi, in the end, develops no real attachment to Crampas and decides that the best course of action for herself and her family—she has an infant daughter by this time—is to stay with her husband who is being promoted through the ranks of the political system.  When Effi and Innstetten move to Berlin for his new ministerial post, Effi believes that the affair is something in the past, a long-forgotten indiscretion.  She still has bouts of sadness because she misses the emotional and physical connection with Crampas but she puts aside her own needs for the sake of her husband and daughter.

Innstetten, who was a former suitor of Effi’s mother, has spent his life working and improving his career.  After the rejection by Effi’s mother, he has denied himself intimate human connections or marriage.  But the thought of having another chance with a young woman who greatly resembles his former love is too tempting.  He seems delighted with Effi and throughout their honeymoon and the early days of their marriage he is very complimentary and affectionate to his young wife.  But once he settles back into his routine he takes on the role of an authority figure.  It is Crampas who points out to Effi that Innstetten has assumed the role of “pedagogue” in their marriage.    Effi’s high spirits and vigor are greatly contrasted with her husband’s restraint and self-control.  He is a man of the law and sees the world in terms of moral imperatives and absolutes.  Effi’s affair is her attempt to free herself from these constraints.

Effi keeps her love letters from Crampas locked away in her sewing box and six years after the affair has ended, while they are living in Berlin, Innstetten discovers the letters quite by accident.  Even though he still loves his wife, his strict adherence to his values causes him to make decisions that destroy his entire family.  He challenges Crampas to a fatal duel, throws his wife out of his home and doesn’t allow Effi any further contact with her daughter.  Innstetten’s handles the situation in the only way he feels right, but his morally correct actions bring him no peace or comfort.  Several years after Effi is gone, he has a vulnerable moment and confides in one of his only friends: “But I’ve forgotten how to be glad about anything.  If I said that to anyone other than you, it would just sound like a glib phrase.  But you can follow my drift.  Look at this place; look at how empty and desolate it all is.”

The strengh of Fontane’s narrative lies in the character of Effi that he creates for his story.  Effi stands among famous 19th century female characters like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary as an example of a daring woman who resists the sexual, emotional and even political restraints that are imposed on her.  Effi finally returns to her parent’s home, the one place she was truly happy and free to be herself.  She dies, full of heartache and grief, but is buried in her favorite place in the garden and, as a last act of defiance and free will,  she requests her own, original name be carved on her gravestone: Effi Briest.

(I read the Penguin Classics version translated by Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers.  Persephone Books has also published a translation by Walter Wallich that was reviewed by Ali at her blog: https://heavenali.wordpress.com/2017/05/08/effi-briest-theodor-fontane-1895/).

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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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Filed under British Literature, Classics, German Literature, Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Novella

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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