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Exploring Weimar Berlin with a readalong for #germanlitmonth – in which I jump ship…

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Yup. I am afraid that after a week of trying to push through the third section of this readalong, I decided last night that it was time for me to bail…

I don’t often give up on a book nowadays as I do tend to try to read things I hope I’ll like or get something out of; after all, my life is finite and it’s too precious to waste on a book I’m hating. But I sat last night and asked myself if there was any point in continuing and came back with the answer no. So I’ve abandoned “Berlin Alexanderplatz”.

Frankly, I don’t care what happens to Franz or any of his friends; I feel like the effort I’m having to make to read it is not balanced with anything that’s rewarding enough; and I reckon I could get a sense of Berlin at that time from any number of books which I would actively enjoy rather than one I’m wrestling with. Reading *shouldn’t* be a struggle and this was; I realised I was having to force myself to pick up the book and starting to hate the experience of reading it, which is not how it should be. It’s disappointing in a way, because at the start of this section I had begun to feel a bit more invested, and was actually enjoying the narrative. But that dissipated as the week went on and I found myself looking at all the other books I *could* have been reading and resenting the fact I was spending time with BA.

So I’m sorry Caroline and Lizzy, and I do hope you have a more rewarding experience than I do. The questions you both provided to aid our discussion and experience with the book *were* helpful and did focus the mind; but in the end I had to declare myself beaten. Onward and upward with something completely different, methinks!!!!

Exploring Weimar Berlin with a readalong for #germanlitmonth – Week 2

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OK – we’re into week two of the readalong of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” and it’s time to share my thoughts on chapters 3 – 5. Again, this is a section of around 100 pages (well, slightly more) in my edition, and so theoretically quite manageable, though I have to say I think I read 350-odd pages of Golden Age crime more rapidly than this… Anyway, onto the questions from Lizzy and here’s what I’m thinking so far,

1. What do you make of Döblin’s structuring of the novel? The short summaries at the beginning of each chapter, each section? The montage technique?

The structure of the novel is interesting, and as I’ve mentioned, reading Dos Passos recently has meant I’ve coped quite well. I like the little summaries at the beginning of the chapters, and the descriptions of the sections; however the montage technique is a little different. In Dos Passos, the main narrative was split into sections relating to specific characters which was fairly linear. This was interspersed with montage and news sections as contrast. However, Doblin’s narrative often has these elements mixed together, and the montage is less fragmented than Dos Passos but perhaps more invasive in respect of the main narrative. So the techniques are different but equally interesting and not too difficult for me to read. What *is* difficult to deal with is the next question…

2. Women and the treatment of women in Berlin Alexanderplatz …. Discuss.

Frankly, I wouldn’t have wanted to be a women in Weimar Berlin – or at least in this book. They’re beaten, raped, murdered, manipulated and generally badly treated. Whether this is an accurate portrayal of the period or just of the particular milieu Doblin wants to capture I don’t know, but I’m not liking that aspect. I don’t think I’ve come across one positive portrayal of a woman so far, and I find that a struggle. Franz is a bit of a bastard, frankly, and if he *does* have a happy ending in the book he certainly doesn’t deserve it. I won’t say what he deserves… And Reinhold, who comes up in the next question, is just vile. Women are treated as things to be used, abused, passed on and discarded. Not a good situation really.

A problematic book because of the subject matter….

3. This section introduces Reinhold, who will prove to be Franz Biberkopf’s main antagonist. What do you think of Biberkopf’s initial underestimation of Reinhold?

Franz is a very arrogant and stupid man tbh. He completely fails to grasp what Reinhold is actually like, tries to take control of the man and his lovelife, and this section ends with Reinhold being revealed as completely unlike Franz had perceived him. As well as being a pig towards women, he’s also a nasty and hardened criminal. It seems that Franz in many ways has met his match, and it’s also odd that Franz is so blind regarding the reality of the criminal activities going on around him. As I said, he’s a bit stupid…

4. What was the highlight of this section for you? What the lowlight?

The highlight of the section (and in fact the book so far) has been the vivid picture of the city. Doblin really captures Berlin in a state of flux, being rebuilt after the defeat of the First World War (something of a touchstone, and an event that recurs in the narrative). The montage parts of the prose capture the modern, bustling world with adverts and signs and people constantly trying to sell something new. That part of the book is very successful. The low point is of course the treatment of women; if I’m honest, I might have abandoned the book already because of that if it wasn’t for the readalong.

I also have to confess to having skimmed a chunk of this section as it was all about slaughterhouses. I’m sorry, but as a vegan I just couldn’t… I imagine this means I’m missing something, as I’m presuming this was meant to represent the treatment the humans are receiving in the Germany of the time, but so be it.

5. Do you have any further observations or questions you’ll be looking to answer at a later stage?

There’s a *lot* of religious imagery and tbh I don’t get that. It may all become clear later on, or maybe not. I mentioned this before, and I’m probably missing stuff; but frankly I don’t have the energy to try to work that out at the moment! If I’m truly honest, I’m not sure as yet what Doblin is trying to *say* with the book, but that may reveal itself as I continue to read – or mabye not!

*****

So, there you go. I guess I must be almost half way through and I *will* try to make it to the end. The book is not always an easy read because of the elements I’ve mentioned, and yet I do like Doblin’s prose style (in this particular translation). Hope the next section will bring more enlightenment… 😉

 

 

 

Exploring Weimar Berlin with a readalong for #germanlitmonth – Week 1

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November is a month of many challenges, it seems; amongst other things, readers are encouraged to spend time with novellas, non-fiction and with the works of Margaret Atwood! One particularly enjoyable event is German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, and I’ve been happy to take part in this before.  I wasn’t sure if I was going to join in this time round; however, there is a readalong taking place, and it happens to be a book that I’ve had lurking on the TBR for a long, long time….

The book in question is “Berlin Alexanderplatz” by Alfred Doblin, and at just under 500 pages it was perhaps a bit intimidating, till I had a look at the schedule. And as the book is split into chunks of about 100 or so pages at a time I figured it might be manageable. So here goes – let’s see if I can stick to *any* kind of reading schedule.

Lizzy and Caroline have provided some questions for each weekly post, and so here are those which focus on Chapters 1 and 2 of the book! 😀

1. Welcome to the #germanlitmonth readalong of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.  What enticed you to readalong with us?

I’ve had the book on the TBR for ages, and like so many enthusiastic purchases it’s ended up sitting there unread while shiny new volumes get picked up sooner. I’ve been reading a bit more off the TBR recently, and I guess I just wanted the impetus and discipline to pick it up and read it!

2. Summarise your initial expectations.  Are they being met?

I had few expectations, except that it was regarded as a Modernist text which painted a picture of Weimar Berlin. That’s certainly what I’m encountering and I’m enjoying that very much. I also picked up the impression that the book was difficult, but I’m finding it surprisingly readable…

3. Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading? If you’re reading the original German, is there anything noteworthy about Döblin’s language?

Penguin Modern Classics edition from 1982, translated by Eugene Jolas. I’m finding it very readable, as I said, and it may well be that I’m used to translations/prose from the 20th century so I’m comfortable with it. So far, it reads very impressionistically and evocatively, which I like.

4. What are your first impressions of Berlin and Franz Biberkopf?

Franz is a bit of a wide boy, isn’t he? Somewhat brutal, convicted of manslaughter, he’s not necessarily an appealing man. However, we don’t necessarily need to like our protagonists, and in fact Berlin itself is taking some of the centre stage in the storyline so far. It’s a vibrant yet seamy place, full of corruption and crime – all very interesting so far…

5. Döblin’s original title was “Berlin Alexanderplatz” He added “The Story of Franz Biberkopf” at the publisher’s insistence.  Why do you think the publisher intervened in this way?  How does this duality of focus manifest itself in the structure of chapter 2?

I imagine the publisher wondered what the bald title Berlin Alexanderplatz conveyed on its own, and decided it needed a little more elaboration! As for chapter 2, the focus seems to me to be divided between Franz and the people around him; he *isn’t* at this point necessarily at the centre of the story and the general culture of Weimar Berlin. It’s a polyphonic narrative, full of bustling, hustling voices, and I’ll be interested to see where the story goes!

6. Do you any have any further observations or questions you’ll be looking to answer at a later stage? 

I came to the book with no real preconceptions, and so I’ll simply be interested to see how the narrative develops. However, I noticed that the blurb (from 1982) described the book as being the equivalent of “Ulysses” or Dos Passos’ “America” – and I’ve recently read the first book of the latter. Initially I didn’t get the resemblance, but as I’ve read on I’m starting to see what they mean. Will be fund to see how this aspect develops!

*****

So those are my thoughts so far! The book is not as intimidating as I thought it might be, and I’m keen to see how it develops. I like the quirky nature of the narrative, the translation is not jarring so far, and the picture of Berlin that’s developing is very vivid. Watch this space for more impressions of “Berlin Alexanderplatz”!

“The modern spirit has become a more and more calculating one” #GeorgSimmel @pushkinpress #willstone

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The Art of the City: Rome, Florence, Venice by Georg Simmel
Edited, translated and introduced by Will Stone

After the mad reading and posting for the #1944Club I hit the usual unfocused slump that usually follows an intense period of reading. I have *loads* of books I could choose to open next, but have been hit by raging indecision. After the lovely escapism of “Eve in Egypt”, something slim and non-fiction seemed the best option – so I went for this lovely little review copy kindly provided by Pushkin Press, which turned out to be anything but slight!

“The Art of the City” is a new volume in the Pushkin Collection range – lovely little books with gorgeous covers and French flaps – and the author, Georg Simmel is a new name to me. As the introduction by translator Will Stone reveals, Simmel (1858-1918) was an influential German sociologist, philosopher, and critic. This volume contains four seminal essays by Simmel; three discuss the cities of Rome, Florence and Venice, all long considered aesthetic architectural gems, with the final one, “The Metropolis and the Life of the Spirit” taking a very timely and modern look at the effect of city living on the human psyche. It’s a slim yet intellectually complex book and one which really sets you thinking about the way cities have grown up and how we live in them nowadays, as well as what they do to us.

In his introduction, Stone rightly identifies Simmel as an early flaneur, a kind of proto-psychogeographer, who looked at these three ancient cities as works of art as well as places to live in, ruminating on the effects modernity will have on them as well as considering how some kind of equilibrium can be achieved between the human spirit, nature and art.

Of Rome, Simmel comments, “Here, countless generations have created and built structures side by side, one on top another, each having no concern for or comprehension of what went before, responding only to the demands of the hour and the mood of the epoch.” That could be said of many a city, of course, but fortuitously for Rome the result is architectural beauty, a balance between landscape and buildings old or new which seems rare. The disparate elements are somehow harmonious and the city becomes a sum of its parts. Florence has a similar effect on Simmel:

Poppies and brook, shuttered villas like locked-up secrets, children at play, blueness and clouds of the heavens – all this can be found everywhere in the world and everywhere is beautiful, but here it harbours a spiritual and aesthetic element, a quite alternative peripheral view, for nothing enchants by its beauty alone, but rather participates in an overarching absolute beauty.

However, Simmel appears to find Venice‘s falseness displeasing; its facade is something I’ve heard others railing against, and the sham nature of the place is not to his liking. That city is, of course, an artificial construct (in much the same way that St. Petersburg is, I suppose) and although all cities are *built* the process is often random, unplanned and develops over many decades or even centuries, responding to the needs of the people using it. Building a conurbation from scratch, in a planned, controlled way, seems to me a very modern conceit (look, for example, at the Garden City movement of the 20th century) and what is manufactured and looks good on paper does not always end up being something in which a human being can live happily.

The bottom line is that in the life of the metropolis the struggle with nature for the necessary food of life has turned into a conflict between human beings, and the fiercely contested reward is here bestowed not by nature but by man. Here flows not only the previously cited source of specialization, but the deeper one, where the seller must arouse in the person to whom he wishes to sell ever more novel and specific requirements.

But I digress a little. The icing on the cake in this book is the final essay; an inspiring piece of work, which considers the dehumanising effects of the modern metropolis, it apparently influenced thinkers and writers like Walter Benjamin, Heidegger and Rilke (I’d also be interested to know if Marshall Berman ever read it). It’s a thoughtful, bracing and provocative piece that discusses the vast differences between the experience of living in rural areas or urban areas; and rather chillingly Simmel traces the alienation of the modern city as stemming from the gulf between producers and consumers, the dominance of the money principle and the isolation of human beings from each other.

via Wikimedia Commons

The pace of life even at the time of the essay (1903) is perceived as having a negative effect, so goodness know what Simmel would make of the modern world. The vast number of stimuli thrown at human beings on a daily basis is constantly increasing, and it could be argued that we haven’t evolved at a pace to keep up with the changes around us – which could be the source of some of our modern problems.

Money, with its colourlessness and supreme indifference, becomes the universal denominator of all values, a most terrifying leveller, hollowing out the core of things, their peculiarities, their intrinsic value, their incomparability. All swim at the same specific weight in the continuously moving flow of money, all rest on the same level and differ only through their monetary value.

As you can see by my constantly rambling off at tangents, this book really *does* punch above its weight and provides some profound insights into the difficulties of urban living. I found myself surprised that I hadn’t heard of Simmel before, and wondering why his work wasn’t more read and discussed nowadays – but of course that might be a lack of English versions… Which leads me on to naming and thanking the translator! 🙂

I’ve reviewed works rendered by Will Stone (who is also a poet and essayist) before on the Ramblings; I thought very highly of his defence of Stefan Zweig and also his translation of “Rilke in Paris” which he produced so wonderfully for the Hesperus Press edition, even providing photos for the book. Once again, he’s done the essays here justice with an erudite foreword exploring Simmel’s life and work; and although as a monolinguist I can’t really comment on the nitty-gritty of the translation, it does read beautifully! If you’re at all interested in considering how architecture and urban living impact on humans, or just in reading some really stimulating essays, I recommend this book highly – Simmel’s work is most definitely worth exploring.

*****

After finishing Simmel’s essays, which linger beautifully in the mind, I remembered that

a. they were translated from German
b. it’s German Lit Month hosted by Lizzy Siddal and Caroline at Beauty in a Sleeping Cat!

I always try to take part in German Lit Month, and so even though these essay are probably very off topic (as I believe the ladies have a particular focus this month), I’m still going to claim this post for the month’s reading!

An unexpected tale from Stefan Zweig

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german-literature-month-vi

Back in the summer of 2015 I was fortunate to stumble on a pair of lovely Pushkin Collection volumes of Stefan Zweig stories – “The Governess and other stories” and “Wondrak and other stories”. I read a story from each and then, typically for me, popped them on a shelf to read later. Roll on nearly 18 months, and I came across them whilst I was reshuffling a few books, and thought that I should at least give Zweig some reading time during German Literature Month!I recalled flipping through “The Governess…”, and the first story in that volume (“Did He Do It?”) is a really intriguing and unexpected one for a tale from Zweig; so I thought I would re-read it and see what I thought second time round.

did-he-do-it

Unusually, the story is set in England, near Bath to be precise, and it’s narrated by a lady called Betsy. She opens her tale with the bald statement that she’s sure that “he” is the murderer – who “he” is and who was killed is left to be revealed as the story progresses, but it’s a dramatic opening guaranteed to ensnare the reader from the very start!

Betsy and her husband have retired to a little cottage in the area, near a canal, and are enjoying their rest. Their tranquillity is ruffled a little by the arrival of some neighbours, the Limpseys, who build a love nest nearby. The Limpseys have been married for some years, and it’s clear from early on that it’s the husband John who dominates. An overenthusiastic man with no restraint, he throws himself into situations and relationships, exhausting those around him with his over-the-top zeal – it’s clear he has an abundance of energy which needs an outlet! His poor wife is overwhelmed and in many ways secretly happy when he’s away at work.

The couple are childless and Betsy makes the mistake of procuring a pet dog for them, given the name of Ponto. Needless to say, Limpsey throws himself into pet ownership, so much so that before long it’s the dog that rules the roost in the household and the neighbours are actually quite happy that he has an aversion to them. However, life for the Limpseys takes another odd turn, one which will have a dramatic effect on Ponto and then tragic results for his owners themselves. More than that I cannot say without risking ruining the story for you.

What could be a straightforward, whodunnit-ish type of tale is transformed here in the hands of a master storyteller. This is less of a mystery than a psychological study – of the relationships between man and animal, of the dangers of unchecked behaviour and of the consequences of extreme emotions. The portrait of Ponto’s temperament, changing from devotion to dominance through abandonment and then malevolence is impressive, and he becomes the central character of the story.

Zweig with Lotte and neice Eva in Bath - 1940

Zweig with Lotte and niece Eva in Bath – 1940

I love Stefan Zweig’s writing, and this was something of a departure – but a fascinating one! In a short work he can pack in so much and his narrative voice, as a retired Englishwoman, was entirely convincing (apparently Zweig did live near Bath for a while). “Did He Do It?” was further evidence of Zweig’s talent (if that was needed!) and I constantly find myself wondering why he was ignored for so many years. If you haven’t yet read Zweig, I highly recommend you do – you have so many treats in store!

(Post)#GermanLitMonth – A State of Mind

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The Wall Jumper by Peter Schneider

Even though we’re comfortably into December, I’m going to claim this one for German Literature Month, as I did *read* it in November – I just ran out of reviewing time! And actually, bearing in mind its length, I’ll also claim it for #novellanov!

For those of us who grew up during the Cold War, the divide between East and West, as exemplified by the Berlin Wall, has an enduring fascination. So when I stumbled across mention of Peter Schneider’s “The Wall Jumper” I was very keen to track it down, as I do have something of a fascination with the GDR (which I think I’ve mentioned on the Ramblings!)

wall jumper

Schneider is an author I hadn’t heard of before, and from a cursory look online it seems as if this might be his best known work in English; certainly there are only a few other titles obviously available, and he’s not a writer I’ve seen discussed much. However, on the evidence of “The Wall Jumper” I’d certainly like to read more.

The book is narrated by an unnamed writer who may or not be Schneider himself, and is set in Berlin before the fall of the Wall. It’s populated by characters who live on both sides of the divide: there is Pommerer, the friend in the East the narrator visits and who spins legends of jumpers; Robert, an escapee to the West who tells tales from his bar stool; and there is Lena, the narrator’s past love whose reactions were conditioned by the East which left her temperamentally incapable of a relationship with a Westerner. Binding them together is the narrator, attempting to find the perfect tale of a wall jumper, as he flits back and forth across the Wall. And the tales themselves are fascinating: there are the three youngsters who regularly cross the Wall in its early days to watch Hollywood films; a man who feels compelled to jump back and forth for no good reason; and people with more sinister intent who end up paying the ultimate price. It’s a chilling reminder of just how recent the Cold War was, particularly when you notice that those in the West can visit the East and leave, but those from the East can only escape illegally or if their freedom is bought by the other side.

wall

But as he searches for the perfect story, it becomes clear that the wall jumper of the title is in fact the narrator himself; shuttling back and forth between East and West, collecting stories and legends of other jumpers and weaving them into his tale, he’s unable to resist his fascination with the city’s great divide.

Every story lacks something the next one has; but then the next story is missing something from the one before. Maybe the story I’m looking for doesn’t exist.

The story is dominated by the Wall, of course and the effect that it has had on those living around it. You would think that simply plonking an arbitrary divide through a city wouldn’t change the people on either side, but in fact it has. Those on the opposing sides of the wall have either chosen where to live according to their belief or mindset, or else have tailored their thought to where they live. Either way, their personality is set by the side of the wall which they inhabit and because of this they constantly misunderstand each other. The Wall is shown to be something that exists in the mind, perhaps more so than the physical

It will take us longer to tear down the wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the wall we can see. Pommerer and I can dissociate ourselves from our states as much as we like, but we can’t speak to each other without having our states speak for us.

And what of the narrator? I felt that he vacillated, unable to decide exactly where his sympathies lay. Like the jumpers themselves, his narrative shifted constantly, from past to present, East to West and in many ways he seemed unsettled in both regions.

Schneider

“The Wall Jumper” was an absolutely fascinating read. In this short novel, Schneider crystallises and encapsulates the ideological divide that used to exist between East and West (and probably still does); and it has a powerful message about how different beliefs and mindsets can affect the world today. Essential reading!

The Lost World of the Viennese Cafe (#GermanLitMonth)

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Late Fame by Arthur Schnitzler

Continuing with this month’s German theme, I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of this book from the lovely Pushkin Press (for which many thanks!); I’ve been keen to read Schnitzler for a while and I’m sure I have at least one book by him lurking somewhere. However, “Late Fame” sounded fascinating: a lost work of a famous author which survived hidden away in his archive. The archive itself had an intriguing history; Schnitzler died in 1931, and his literary legacy was stored in his son’s house in Vienna. When the Nazis forcibly took control of Austria in 1938, it was likely that the work would be destroyed, as Schnitzler’s books had been amongst those burned by the Nazis earlier in the decade. Fortunately, due to intervention by the British Consulate, the seal of the British Government was placed on the door of the archive, and thereafter it made its way by a tortuous route to the Cambridge University Library where it stayed hidden all those years.

late fame

Wikipedia has Schnitzler listed as simply “an Austrian author and playwright. He is considered one of the most important representatives of the Viennese Modernism.” But it goes on to note that much of his work was considered controversial for its frank sexual content, and that his books were labelled as “Jewish filth” by Hitler (hence the burning, presumably). Nothing like this is present in “Late Fame”, however, which tells the story of one Eduard Saxberger, a lowly and ageing civil service clerk. Unmarried and fairly solitary, he’s in the habit of spending his evenings in a local restaurant with locals he’s known for years, conversing and playing cards. However, one evening he returns home to find a young man waiting for him by the name of Meier. Meier declares he is a poet, and has come to pay homage to the forgotten author of “Wanderings” – for indeed, in his youth, Saxberger had published such a volume of poems, a fact he hasn’t thought about for many years.

Meier tells the bemused Saxberger that he and his friends (grouping themselves under the name of ‘Enthusiasm’) are all huge fans of “Wanderings” and as typical misunderstood artists they empathise with his plight. Saxberger hadn’t actually realised he had a plight, but as he begins to mix with the young people, he realises he has been neglected for too long. The young artists begin to plan a performance, at which Saxberger will perform a new work and all will be showered in glory. However, things are not necessarily that straightforward: How will Saxberger be received by new generations of audiences? Is the work of the young poets really as incomprehensible as it seems to him? What will his old friends think of his new status as a famous poet? What do his new young friends *really* think of “Wanderings”? And most importantly of all, can Saxberger still write poetry?

Arthur_Schnitzler_website

“Late Fame” is quite fascinating; not only is it a devastating satire of the untalented artist, convinced he’s misunderstood by the world and that everyone else is a failure, but it also deals with the effect of false flattery on a simple nature. Saxberger *is* a simple man; used to spending his time with his restaurant friends, he’s seduced by the illusion of fame, convincing himself that his real life should have been as a famous poet and not an ordinary man. Fortunately, he’s grounded enough to recognise the illusion in time and step back into his own world, something that the younger people won’t be able to do, and Schnitzler lets him off lightly. As one of his friends sensibly points out, all young men of the time tried their hands at poetry, but once they outgrew this tendency they went on to live a normal life. However, the author has no mercy at all for the second-rate members of Enthusiasm and I can’t foresee much of a future for them in the creative world….

Apparently Schnitzler based many of the characters in the book on real people, a parody of a literary circle that met in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. The characters are certainly wonderfully drawn, from the pompous Meier through the ageing and fading actress Fräulein Gasteiner to timid young Winder (who I felt was the most sincere of the group). “Late Fame” manages to be funny and poignant at the same time, satirizing brilliantly the pretensions of would-be literati. It’s published in a beautiful little hardback edition by the wonderful Pushkin Press who once again deserve awards for bringing us this newly translated English version. If you’ve ever fancied yourself as a bit of a poet, it might be worth reading this book first…. 🙂

(Many thanks to Pushkin Press for kindly providing a review copy – details of the book can be found on their website here, and they also publish a number of other titles by Schnitzler which will definitely be worth exploring!)

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