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“….I’ve been running all my life…” #thepassenger #GermanLitMonth @PushkinPress

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As part of German Lit Month, hosted by Lizzy and Caroline, there has been a readalaong of a book which has made quite a splash in the media. The work in question is “The Passenger” by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, and it has a fascinating history. An early version of the book was first published in England shortly after the author and his mother escaped their after war broke out in 1939. However, Boschwitz was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ and eventually sent to Australia; after Pearl Harbour he was rebranded as a ‘friendly alien”; but the ship upon which he was being sent back to the UK was torpedoed and Boschwitz was lost along with 361 fellow travellers. The author had indicated to his mother, shortly before his death, that he wished to revise “The Passenger”, and that job was taken on recently by German publisher and editor Peter Graf, with the help of Boschwitz’s family and what could be gleaned of his intentions. So “The Passenger” comes with a very interesting genesis – but what is the story actually about?

“The Passenger” is set in Germany, 1938; it’s not a happy place for anyone of Jewish origin to be, as synagogues are being burned, Jews arrested and taken away, and their businesses seized or destroyed. Our protagonist is one Otto Silbermann; a middle class businessman, with a gentile wife, he’s so far avoided the horrors creeping up on his fellows. However, as the book opens he’s struggling through some business deals, attempting to liquidate property, and it’s clear that Otto has become aware that time is limited. His son has already escaped from Germany but is struggling to get exit papers for his father; his wife is of course relatively safe, apart from the fact that she’s married to a Jew; and the main thing Otto has in his favour is that he doesn’t look Jewish. Being able to ‘pass’ will be a significant advantage in the days to come…

The arrival of stormtroopers at his apartment shocks Otto into running, and he takes off into the streets of Berlin. However, there doesn’t appear to be safety here either; those who know him and know he’s Jewish avoid him, hoteliers and restauranteurs who formerly happily served him turn their backs; and Otto starts to realise that what status he had has been stripped away by the Nazi decrees and treatment of his people. What follows is a tense series of flights as Otto shuttles from place to place on a sequence of train journeys, trying to get out of Germany, find out if his wife is safe, contact his son and hold onto what money he has left. His encounters on the way are chilling – will Otto’s constant movement be enough to keep him ahead of the Nazis and safe from capture?

We were always just one of many, part of a group. And now we’re alone. There’s no longer someone giving commands, there’s no order you can stick to. You have to run and there’s no one telling you where to.

It’s fair to say that “The Passenger” is a nail-biting read; with the benefit of hindsight, we know what it was like when the Nazis came to power and how ghastly their regime was. However, Boschwitz takes the reader right into the heart of that time, and we experience the horrors alongside Otto as he attempts to come to terms with his world falling apart. It’s the kind of book you can’t put down, fearing for Otto at each encounter and willing him to behave calmly and sensibly when of course that really isn’t possible.

What I found particularly interesting is that Otto is not necessarily a particularly likeable character; he’s quite pompous, very much the middle-class, well-to-do businessman, and part of the power of the story is watching all of this fall apart as the strain of running gradually wears him down. His meetings with those he knows are often chilling as they either turn their back, or try to help, or keep their distance; one memorable encounter is with an acquaintance who realises that by his very appearance he’s potentially putting Otto in danger of being identified as a Jew. Otto initially has contempt for those who reject him, but as his situation gets worse he finds that his own survival becomes the only thing which matters, and that he’s no better than those who refuse to help him.

He angrily tossed away the cigarette he’d just lit. Whatever I’ve done in the past, he thought, looks different today than it did back then, because now my humanity is called into question, because I am a Jew.

As well as being a gripping read, “The Passenger” is also a really powerful portrait of a man unravelling under pressure. It’s hard to accept that your normal, ordinary, everyday world is suddenly gone and that your country is being ruled by sadistic madmen. In similar situations, I’m sure we’d find this equally difficult to accept, and it’s only when the truth is incontrovertably presented to Otto in the form of jackboots beating down the door that he realises his life is gone and he needs to flee. He’s not a man of action, however, and the strain of the flight is too much.

Author photograph via Pushkin Press website

As I mentioned at the start of my post, “The Passenger” was lost for decades until it was rediscovered and edited by Peter Graf; and I have to applaud him and the various publishers and translators involved in bringing this work back into print. The English version is translated by Philip Boehm with a preface by Andre Aciman, and is published by the ever-reliable Pushkin Press. As well as being an unforgettable and gripping read, it’s also a timely re-issue. At a period in the planet’s history when extreme regimes are threatening people all over the world, we need to be reminded of how easily those in charge can get out of control and how vile intolerance of others is. “The Passenger” carries a vital message from the past, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

A Dark Tale of Vengeance #durrenmattday #GermanLitMonth

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As part of November’s German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy and Caroline, today has been declared “Durrenmatt Day”! The plan, I believe, is to focus on writings by the author Friedrich Durrenmatt who’s known for his dark thrillers. I have an omnibus collection of his works but alas have run out of reading this month; so I thought instead I would share my thoughts on one of his titles which I read back in 2017 for our 1951 ClubThe Quarry.

As I said at the time, the book “is billed as a Kafkaesque detective story and there’s certainly nothing straightforward about it. The book is set in 1948 and features Commissioner Barlach (who was an Inspector in a previous Durrenmatt title), a man at the point of death; fighting cancer, he is recovering from a heart attack when he notices that his friend and physician Hungertobel is shocked by a photo in a copy of Life which Barlach is reading. The photo is a horrific one, of a doctor operating on a patient in a concentration camp with no anaesthetic, and after much probing Barlach finds out that Hungertobel thinks he recognises the man. However, the doctor in the picture is apparently dead and Hungertobel’s acquaintance is the respected medic Emmenberger who runs an exclusive private clinic in Zürich.

It seems impossible that the two men are the same, but Barlach cannot leave his suspicion alone. Calling on his contacts, he learns more about the Nazi doctor Nehle from a mysterious Jewish survivor of the camps known only as Gulliver. Barlach arranges for Hungertobel to have him transferred to the clinic so that he can track down the doctor and find out the truth; but he soon discovers that he may have taken on more than he can handle and met his match.

…one should start sweeping and scrubbing if one discovers dirty spots; but to tear the whole house down right away is senseless and ignorant. For it is difficult to build a new house in this poor hurt world. It takes more than a generation, and when it is finally built, it won’t be better than the old one. It’s important that one can tell the truth and that one can fight for it – without landing in jail.

“The Quarry” is a stark book, and it very much reflects the time it is set in and the time it was published. The war and its effects are still fresh in people’s minds, and the horrific experiences undergone by Gulliver have left physical and mental scars which will not easily heal. The sense of post-War unease reminded me a little of the atmosphere portrayed in “The Lost Europeans“, and it does seem that many who were culpable for their behaviour managed to slip through the net and carry on their lives as it nothing had happened. When Barlach finally encounters Emmenberger the man’s influence over his subordinates is chilling; he’s seen as pure evil and there seems no escape for our detective. Gulliver has had his chance to state his point of view, and now Emmenberger has his, and it really doesn’t make pleasant reading.

I read “The Quarry” almost in one sitting as it was absolutely compelling, and knowing this was the only other Barlach book I couldn’t be sure of the outcome. The end is satisfying (though perhaps in retrospect not entirely unexpected) and the story lingers in the mind for a long time after finishing it. This is a brutal book in some places, but a necessary one – nearly 50 years on from its publication, it reminds us of unspeakable events which we really must make sure are not repeated.”

*****

I obviously thought highly of the book at the time, and I’ve read other titles by the author pre-blog; so this is a useful reminder that some of my omnibus edition is still unread! As I said at the time, the book doesn’t credit the translator, which is very frustrating… Nevertheless, a memorable read from a powerful author, and deserving of his day during this German Literature Reading Month!

November – a month with lots of reading events…..

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It seems impossible somehow that we’re up to November; it has been a manic year for me, and October was a particularly tricky month, dealing with frantic times at work and also sorting out stuff around the health of my Aged Parent. Books have therefore been something of a refuge again, and these are the ones I read during the previous month:

As you can see I am even further behind with my reviewing than usual! But it was a good reading month with only one book which didn’t inspire, and so I’m happy with that.

However, as I mentioned in my heading to this post, November is a month with many, many reading events – some of which I shall be taking part in, although I have mostly read the books in question in advance! Here are some of the events I know about!

Those are just a few – I think there are more – and I have read a little for these so I can take part. As for the rest of the month, as usual I’ll let my mood take me where it will, and I do have plenty of choices! There are a good number of review books pending, and here’s just a selection:

Then there are other lovely books on the immediate TBR, and I’d happily pick up any of these next:

I’ll also be taking part in a blog tour for the British Library Women Writers series, and I’ll be covering a book I love – “A Pin to See the Peepshow” by F. Tennyson Jesse. It’s a compelling, powerful and absolutely marvellous read, and so I’m very happy it’s being brought back into print!

Apart from those – well, who knows! Watch this space (plus my Twitter and Instagram) to see what I read next! 😀

November and its challenges – where did it all go…..?

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November was a *very* busy month with reading events, and I had lots of plans – as I revealed in this post… I’m not sure it has gone entirely as I intended, although I *have* ticked the box for each one. But some were read before November, and I did have a bit of a slump in the middle of the month when work was ridiculously busy and then I had a hideous head cold (HOW! How could I catch a cold when I have basically been wearing a mask since March??????) I found it very hard to settle while the American Election drama was taking place, too – so much seemed to hinge on it and thank goodness for the result. Anyway, this is the small pile of books read during November:

Although it’s a smaller pile than I usually feature at the end of the month, there are some really interesting titles and authors in there. The Gallic Revolutionary Women books are something I’m covering for Shiny New Books. There are items from some of my bookish subscriptions, Penguin Moderns, crime, Atwood and Barthes! I did enjoy all the books I read, and there will be a review of the Barthes coming up this week; I will count that as a Non-Fiction November read as it’s definitely non-fiction and was definitely read in November! 😀

Looking forward to December, with all the stress and strain and confusion in the world at the moment, it’s going to be a difficult one I feel. So I plan to try to keep the reading simple and go with things I really want to read, and which will give me some escapism from rotten reality. One of the main issues I’ve been having is feeling overwhelmed with the amount of book piles lying around unread, so I had a bit of a tidy up and coralled a lot of the pending titles onto a little bookshelf which now looks like this:

This has made me feel a lot calmer and now I feel I can just pick what I fancy off the shelves and enjoy following my reading mojo. To look more specifically at the options, here are the possibles in the various rows…

The top shelf has some beautiful books sent by BL Publishing – Sci Fi Classics, Crime Classics and Women Writers. Any of these would be perfect comfort reads for a long month. Then there are subscription books from Fum d’Estampa, Renard Press and Sulunary Editions – I want to read them all at once…. There are review copies of Chekhov and Penguin classic sci fi, all of which look and sound lovely. And at the end, my collection of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” sequence. I’ve wanted to re-read these for ages, and of course December is the time to do it. Should I? Could I?

Here’s the middle shelf! There are some incredibly beautiful NYRB editions here, and all of them are screaming for attention. Then there are some lovely books that wonderful people have sent me (thank you Olga Zilberbourg and QC Fiction). I still have a little stack of unread Fitzcarraldos, which I could read now, or hang onto in case Lizzy and I decide to do another Fitzcarraldo Fortnight! And I have a huge pile of Mike Walmer’s lovely editions to catch up on – such wonderful titles!!

The bottom shelf is more of a mish-mash, with a number of books which have been lying around for a while with no real connection between them. Again, all are interesting and would be good reads – it’s just a case of deciding! 😀

However, decisions are a little more complex thanks to the arrival of some new titles this week:

Some are review copies, and some are purchases (thank you Blackwells and Hive!) However, the arrival of five new Penguin Great Ideas editions has thrown a bit of a spanner in the works as far as my reading plans are concerned!

I had intended to read all 120(!!!!) in order, although after the first set of 20 I only have a piecemeal collection. These five were the ones I most wanted from the new set, and I got them at very reasonable prices. And now I’m thinking – as I don’t own the whole lot, would it be cheating to read them in whatever order took my fancy?? Do I actually *need* to read them in the order 1 to 120, bearing in mind that that wouldn’t be chronological beause each set of 20 starts with an ancient classic and ends with a more modern work? So I could maybe just read whichever one I wanted when the mood takes me….?

So what to you think? *Is* that cheating? Should I just read the Great Ideas in whatever order suits my reading mojo? And which of these books appeals most? Really, I don’t know what to pick up next!! ;D

“There is really nothing that people get used to so readily as miracles…” #GermanLitMonth #NovNov

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Well, astonishingly enough, not only have I read some non-fiction for November, I have also managed to read a book which ticks two boxes at once for this month’s challenges! The work in question is “The Legend of the Holy Drinker” by Joseph Roth (translated by Michael Hofmann) – a contender for not only German Literature but also for Novellas in November! Truth be told, at 49 pages of reasonably large sized type, “Legend…” could almost qualify as a short story! But as my copy is published in a separate volume on its own, we’ll count it as a novella, won’t we? ;D

Roth is an author who’s made a number of appearances on the Ramblings; as well as reading his works “The Hotel Savoy” and “Confession of a Murderer (told in one night)“, he also featured in “Summer Before The Dark” and of course has connections with both Irmgard Keun and Stefan Zweig. I have several other works of his lurking on the TBR, but “Legend…” intrigues for a number of reasons. Firstly, its brevity (many of the Roth books are quite long); then there’s the fact that it was Roth’s last work, written just before his death in May 1939. Add to this the fact that the story seems to draw from Roth’s own alcoholism and it becomes irresistible!

The holy drinker of the title is Andreas, a homeless alcoholic living in poverty under the bridges over the Seine in Paris. One evening, a well dressed gentleman presents him with a gift of 200 francs; why, we never know, although the benevolent man seems to be a recent Christian convert. He asks nothing of Andreas except that he repay the debt if he can by returning the money to the Chapelle de Sainte Marie des Batignolles; here, there is a statue of St. Therese of Lisieux, instrumental in the well dressed gentleman’s conversion. This single act of charity seems to transform Andreas’s life; and every time it appears he has lost his money, or is in a difficult situation, a small miracle will save him. Remembering his beneficiary’s kindness, he does indeed try to turn his life around and return the money, although events intervene at every point. Andreas’s life may be edging closer to its end, but at least his last days will be happier ones…

“Legend…” is a quick read, but one which certainly raises more questions than it gives answers! Really, you could interpret the story however you want, because Roth gives no hard and fast explanations for what happens, nor the motivation of Andreas’s benefactor in choosing who to gift the money too. At times it seems that the fates (or the angels or luck or whatever you happen to believe in) are watching out for Andreas – and it was lovely to see him taking joy from his experiences – but nothing is spelled out. Whether these events really *were* miracles, or whether they’re being related by a drink-fuddled unreliable narrator isn’t really clear; but the story certainly makes fascinating reading.

I was left pondering for a long time after reading this; about luck and fate, whether we should try to take control of our lives or just go along with the route events send us on, and whether it’s better to live fast and burn out young. “The Legend of the Holy Drinker” is a fascinating story, particularly as it’s the work Roth chose to spend his last few months writing and refining; and I’m drawn now to explore some of the other books of his I have on the shelf. A fascinating read and I’m glad I picked this up for these two November challenges!

November challenges – where to start….

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October was a really good bookish month for me, despite my feeling a little sluggish about reading at the beginning of the month. I suddenly got over that feeling during the 1956 Club and really hit my stride – these are the books I finished during the month, and they were all amazing reads in one way or another. I’m still playing catch up with reviews, and some of these will feature either on Shiny New Books or as part of November challenges – and that’s what I want to think about here!

October’s reading! Quite a good pile – I hadn’t finished the Morley when I took the image, but I will have by tomorrow! 😀

November is a month absolutely bursting with challenges – I can think of five off the top of my head and there are four I would definitely like to try to take part in. Unfortunately, I think Australian Literature Month will not make it into my schedule this year, which is a shame. But you can’t do them all. However, first up is Margaret Atwood Reading Month, hosted by Buried in Print and Consumed by Ink.

Now, I love Atwood and I never need an excuse to read her – she’s definitely one of my favourite authors and I’m always delighted to pick up one of her books. I had a rummage round my shelves, and found that there were a couple of works calling to me; oddly enough, not her fictions, but her poetry collection (which I’ve dipped into before) and also a recent arrival in the form of an essay collection.

Well, it looks like I have three choices there, doesn’t it? Ahem. Spot the deliberate mistake…. I gaily sent off for “On Writers and Writing”, and when it arrived realised I already owned it under the title of “Negotiating with the Dead”. D’oh…. Thing is, I’m not entirely sure if I’ve read it or not (it would definitely be pre-blog if I have, when I wasn’t keeping good records)! Even if I have, I would probably be happy to revisit this one – I’ll see how things go!

Next up is Novella November; this is a challenge which has a bit of a chequered history, but this year is being hosted by Bookish Beck and 746 Books! I love a good novella, although there are only a couple of potential titles knocking about which are these two:

Both are slim volumes I’ve had hanging around for a while and which would be ideal to pick up during this month. And interestingly, one of these feeds into the next appealing book challenge for November: German Literature Month 10, hosted by Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy’s Literary Life.

This is a reading event I enjoy very much, and a dig about in the TBR revealed these titles which appeal at the moment:

Yes, there’s the Roth novella again, together with two intriguing works I’ve again had hanging around on the TBR for quite a while (and if my memory serves me correctly, “Dreamers” actually came my way via Lizzy!) Any of these would be wonderful reading. However, there’s one last challenge for the month which has fairly mind-numbing implications because of the choice of works I would have – and that is:

Nonfiction November is an event which is tailor-made for me, because I’m increasingly coming to read more non-fiction; I’ve always loved that kind of writing, and the term embraces such a wide range of books that the choices are endless. At least, they are when it comes to my TBR…. For a start, both Atwoods and two of the German choices count as non-fiction. Then, a casual rummage through Mount TBR revealed to me just how many non-fictions works of all kinds I have unread. I mean, there’s this pile to start with:

Some gorgeous Fitzcarraldos, which take in all kinds of non-fiction writing; a very strange book on Paris; Chateaubriand’s memoirs; and “Night Walking” from Verso (don’t even get me started on the piles of Verso books lurking unread). Happy to pick up any of these right now.

This is what you might loosely call my nature reading pile – mostly fairly chunky, all very appealing and I could easily spend a month or so just on these.

Then there’s the loosely grouped Scottish books, mainly focusing on Edinburgh (yes, I know there’s a Colette in there, but Massie is a Scottish author). I *really* want to pick up the Silent Traveller right now. There are a lot more Scottish books lurking round the house, but that’s a project on which I’m a little scared to embark in case it completely consumes me.

Thing is, this is only scratching the surface. The TBR is *awash* with non-fiction books – I hadn’t quite realised how many till I had a good rummage – and so I’m vaguely overwhelmed and not quite sure where to begin. Knowing me, I shall just fling myself at the piles with wild abandon and grab the first book which comes to hand – wish me luck! There is also a potential distraction looming in the form of a *very* interesting looking documentary coming up on BBC4 soon – look out for more about this on the Ramblings!  And do let me know if you’re taking on any of these November challenges yourself! ;D

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!

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