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#WIT Month – The dark side of Weimar Berlin

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The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun

For last year’s Women In Translation Month I read “Child of All Nations” by Irmgard Keun; this was the second of her titles I’d enjoyed, the first being “After Midnight” which I’d stumbled across in Foyles in 2013. Keun was a fascinating woman with a fascinating life, surviving WW2 in Germany despite having been condemned for her degenerate tendencies, and also spending time with Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth in Ostend – in fact, she had an affair with the latter. I enjoyed both of her books so much that I decided to pick up another for #WIT Month – her second novel, “The Artificial Silk Girl”. Published in 1931, the book caused an immediate stir and was banned by the Nazis in 1933 and all remaining copies burned. Keun was apparently inspired by Anita Loos’ celebrated novel “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, although having read the latter I think that Keun’s book is something very, very different.

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The book is narrated in the form of a diary by Doris, a young woman living in small-town Germany. Her family life is unhappy: despite loving her mother, she doesn’t get on with her father who drinks all the time, and work is in an office where she’s subject to the whims and attentions of an older boss. Doris is obsessed with the idea of glamour and fame, of getting into the cinema and becoming a star; however, that seems less than likely bearing in mind where she lives, and despite getting a small part as an extra in a local theatre, things are not going well for her. She loses her job, her father is demanding she pay for her keep, and the love of her life Hubert is marrying for money. So what’s a girl to do? Tell a lot of lies about the theatre boss, lock a rival in the toilet, steal a fur coat and head off to the bright lights of Berlin – well at least, that’s what Doris does, and her diary is intended to share all this with us and to record her rise to fame.

Berlin, however, is not all it’s cracked up to be. The glamour is superficial, the streets are full of people on the make and Doris finds it impossible to get an entry into any kind of show business as she’s sort of on the run without papers because of the fur coat. So she stays in a succession of temporary homes, hooking up occasionally with a man who always turns out to have a wife, and slowly running out of money and food and hope. Just as she’s about to starve to death, rescue comes in the form of Ernst, nicknamed Green Moss, who regards her as pure and feeds her up. But Ernst is also married, abandoned by his wife – so how will things turn out for the Artificial Silk Girl?

Once again, I was utterly hooked by Keun’s immediate and involving writing. A first person narrative is so often hard to get just right, particularly when it’s a younger person telling the tale. However, Keun succeeded admirably with Kully in “Child of All Nations” and once again gets it spot on here. Doris’s voice is just the right mixture of naivety and arrogance, her vulnerability hidden under a mask of bravado, when all she actually wants is a real home. In several sections Doris lapses into a slightly drunken stream of consciousness, recalling her past life in fragments, and as the truth about her family is actually revealed you can see why she’s ended up the way she has. In fact, I can’t help wondering about Keun’s own childhood as there are fractured families featured in so many of her works.

irmgard

However, what made this book so fresh was the contrasts Doris sees between those who have and those who have not, something still very relevant today. Once again, if you have money you can grab hold of life to the full – without it, life is simply a dull trudge through the quotidian. I was reminded very much of “Grand Hotel”, a recent read, and one of its characters Flammchen who has the same understanding. The women in these books are dependent on their looks to get them a man and a secure life if they don’t want to spend their years scratching out a living at an underpaid job. And Keun is not averse to pointing out the ridiculous hypocrisy in their position:

If a young woman from money married an old man because of money and nothing else and makes love to him for hours and has this pious look on her face, she’s called a German mother and a decent woman. If a young woman without money sleeps with a man with no money because he has smooth skin and she likes him, she’s a whore and a bitch.

Keun was also very much ahead of her time. Christopher Isherwood may have claimed in 1939 that he was a camera, but Doris was there before him. She records the sights, sounds and people of Berlin brilliantly, relaying the city in all its seediness and glory to a blind neighbour, Brunner, in a marvellous series of impressionistic paragraphs. The problem is, when they actually take a walk in the real metropolis they realise that the glamour and the glitter is false and Berlin is a sad place to be. There is perhaps less focus on politics in “Artificial…” when compared with, say, “After Midnight”, but the reader is still aware of the increasing racial tension even if much of this flows past Doris. However, she is astute enough to say at one point, whilst winding up an anti-Semite, “Politics poisons human relationships. I spit on it.”

My version of “Artificial…” was published by the Other Press and translated by Kathie von Ankum. The blurb seems anxious to stress the connections between the book and such modern heroines as Bridget Jones and the ladies from “Sex and the City” – which I’m afraid would have actually put me off, had I not already been a Keun convert. And I did have slight reservations about the translation; I guess they went for the modern vernacular to appeal to today’s audiences, but I really can’t imagine Doris saying “grosses me out”…

However, these small reservations aside, “The Artificial Silk Girl” is highly recommended; as a piece of groundbreaking women’s writing it’s essential, as a portrait of Weimar Germany from the point of view of an impoverished woman it’s unparalleled, and in Doris, Irmgard Keun created an unforgettable heroine – eat your heart out, Sally Bowles! 🙂

Goodbye, July – and August reading plans!

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I’m really not sorry to see the back of July – it was a long and busy month, and I spent a lot of it reading one book, Dostoevsky’s “The Adolescent” (the review for which will be appearing in the next Shiny New Books). It wouldn’t normally take me so long to read 600 pages, but I *was* busy and I *was* tired! The minute I finished work for the summer, I raced through the rest of the book….!

So, with July out of the way, do I have plans for August? Well, yes – there are a number of challenges up this month and I’d like to take part if I can.

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First of all there’s All Virago/All August, which the LibraryThing Virago group organise. I never go for reading nothing but Viragos for the month, because I would fail – like Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, I prefer the approach of “Very Virago/All August” and just read the ones that fall in with my mood. This month, I hope to catch up with the Dorothy Richardsons I’m behind on, and also read a large and interesting-looking Edith Wharton, “Hudson River Bracketed”.

PMP6

I’d also like to keep up the impetus with the Penguin Modern Poets project; the next one is volume 6 and it features two poets I know of (and at least one I’ve read) so it should be an interesting experience.

Keun

August is also Women in Translation month. Goodness knows I have a ton of books by translated women, but choosing will be hard! There are two lovely Irmgard Keun titles lurking on the shelves so I may pick one of them.

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There’s also “Grand Hotel” which I’m doing for Shiny. Plus I may well re-read my favourite Colette, “Break of Day”, as I picked up the Capuchin edition in a charity shop!

woolf orlando recollections

Last, but most definitely not least, I want to dip into HeavenAli’s #Woolfalong; the current phase is biography of all sorts and I’m considering “Orlando” or possibly “Recollections of Virginia Woolf”. Knowing me, I may end up reading neither of these, but I do want to read something Woolfish soon!

So those are the plans for August as they stand on the first day of the month – watch this space to see what materialises! 🙂

#WomenInTranslation Month – Adrift in Europe and the Wider World

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Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun

I first stumbled across the writing of Irmgard Keun in 2013, when I picked up her book “After Midnight” in (old) Foyles as it sounded excellent. It was, and I reviewed it here, and was keen to read more of her work. “Child of All Nations” came my way via ReadItSwapIt shortly after, but it’s taken the impetus of WIT month to get me to pick it up…

child

The book is translated by Michael Hofmann, who’s also responsible for many translations of Joseph Roth and he provides a useful afterword too. The story is told from the point of view of Kully, a nine-year old girl who’s leading anything but a conventional life. Her father is a writer, and he and her mother and Kully herself are on the move in 1930s Europe (the book was published in 1938). They cannot return to Germany because Kully’s father is obviously persona non grata because of his writing and his views.

When I was in Germany, before, I did go to school, and that’s where I learned to read and write. Then my father didn’t want to be in Germany any more, because the government had locked up friends of his, and because he couldn’t write or say the things he wanted to write and say. I wonder what the point is of children in Germany still having to read and write?

However, the family is a very dysfunctional one: Kully’s father is permanently penniless, and he drags the girl and her mother from place to place trying to borrow from friends and acquaintances, get advances on books or payments for articles. Often the two females are left behind in a hotel as a kind of surety while he goes off to get cash – how he ever manages to write is a mystery! And sometimes the absences are longer ones, and you find yourself reading between the lines and suspecting there are other women involved.

The family is constantly shifting location, taking in Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris, Marseilles and Italy amongst other places, and all the time there is the threat of starvation and their political enemies. Finally, Kully’s father decides to try his hand across the Atlantic and here things take a stomach-churning turn. The end is suitably ambiguous and it is unclear whether this fractured family will ever be whole.

In the morning when we woke up, the whole world was different. The sky was three times as big and three times as high as anywhere else, and it was such a brilliant blue that it hurt your eyes. We passed bare-looking mountains with strange black and silver trees growing on them.

Using a child as a narrator is always going to carry risks, but I felt that Keun got the tone just right. Kully is an engaging companion in this story, innocent and yet knowing, and Keun cleverly has her reveal more than she knows without realising it. As adult readers we recognise the meanings of events that Kully does not, and Keun handles this element brilliantly. The girl is remarkably self-reliant, yet vulnerable at the same time, over-reaching herself and getting into scrapes. And because she’s a child, people talk freely in front of her thinking that she doesn’t understand or isn’t listening, when of course she’s a remarkably sharp observer.

Irmgard_Keun

“Child of All Nations” was an excellent portrait of the dispossessed of Europe during the 1930s. All through the book the shadow of what was to come is lurking in the background and of course we know what Keun could not, i.e. what would hit Europe in 1939. If I had a criticism to make it would be that the American section somehow seems a little unnecessary and doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the book. Despite this, however, I got very attached to Kully and her story and I definitely want to read more of Keun’s work.

All change! and a (very) small diversion…

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It has been a bit quiet here on the Ramblings recently for a number of reasons – not just because I’m in the middle of a 900 page chunkster! There’s been a lot going on around here: from health and care issues with Aged Relative, which are incredibly time consuming; busy-busy-busy at work; and taking Youngest Child, the baby of the family, off to university – which was emotional and also involved masses of clearing out of years of old junk……….:s

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So I have been trying to keep sane by reading when there is a moment, and managed to finish a strange short story (before embarking on the chunkster) – a tale from a slim Hesperus volume called “A Simple Story” by Leonardo Sciascia. He’s not an author I’d heard of until I read that he had been brought to publication by Italo Calvino and Wikipedia says rather baldly:

“Leonardo Sciascia (January 8, 1921 – November 20, 1989) was an Italian writer, novelist, essayist, playwright and politician.”

At 40 pages, this has to be one of the shortest crime books I’ve read, but despite its abbreviated length it was surprisingly effective! The story is set in Sicily, and tells the tale of the murder in a small town of a local diplomat who has discreetly returned to his house, after having been away for many years, and who is found shot. At first it seems to be suicide, but thanks to the efforts of a keen young sergeant, the higher-ups are persuaded it really was a murder and have to investigate.

For such a brief story there really is a lot going on! There’s a generous cast of characters, from the diplomat and his family, the local police, the local Carabinieri (a kind of military police, I think) plus the local people and various passers-by. The locations, the people and the events are conjured vividly and convincingly and despite its brevity, you really get involved with this mystery and its solution.

As to the latter, I’m going to say very little because there are some wonderful surprises in store for any reader. Highly recommended!

(“A Simple Story” is accompanied in the book by another, longer tale, “Candido” which I haven’t yet read – just in case anyone was thinking that 40 pages is a bit short for a book!)

Recent arrivals

Alarmingly, despite trying very hard not to buy any books, I seem to have a significant amount of recent arrivals – though fortunately, at no great cost (except for space….)

stewart
I read Mary Stewart in my teens, but only the Arthurian books, and so the recent spate of reviews during Mary Stewart Reading Week piqued my interest. These two titles came from ReadItSwapIt, which I have got rather attached to recently, having had some very succesful swaps – so no cost except for postage in sending away books I didn’t want any more!

keun
I discovered Irmgard Keun recently, and having found “After Midnight” really rewarding, had a little browse on RISI. That’s where this lovely book comes from – a hardback Penguin classic!

family
Well, there’s a little saga attached to this. Liz at Adventures in full-time self-employment reviewed this one recently, and I loved the sound of it but decided I wanted it in a Virago green edition. I was seduced again by A****n – a copy from a reseller described as “Very Good” and only £1.94 with delivery – but I should have known better. It arrived with a heavily creased spine, looking as if somebody had tried to bend it across their knee – NOT IMPRESSED! A quick look on RISI revealed a copy which the owner was willing to trade, and it just arrived and is much lovelier condition. I still have to decide whether or not I want the bother of returning the other copy, or whether I shall offer it on LibraryThing!

cather

Another new Virago, this time from the local Oxfam charity shop – £2.49 and in lovely condition so that isn’t too extravagant! And it sounds fascinating too – Cather’s last book!

hosp

One side-effect of visiting the Aged Relative in hospital is the fact that one of the departments has old books for sale as a fund-raiser. These two were snagged for a small donation, and although they’re a little battered (particularly the Rubens), they’re much better off at home with me! (It’s also a quick, cheap way for me to find out if I like her as an author…)

bridge
Annabel’s lovely blog celebrated its 5th birthday recently and she ran a giveaway – I was lucky enough to be one of the winners and so Mrs. Bridge arrived here via Annabel and the Book Depository – thanks, Annabel!!

best book
One of my favourite publishers, Hesperus Press, have started a book club here, and this is the October book which has arrived for review. It sounds right up my street – can’t wait to get started!

tonac

And finally – phew! – one of the few clickety-click on-impulse buys recently. I was fascinated by the Vulpes Libris post here and so snapped up one of the reasonably priced copies (hardback! decent dustjacket!) before they all vanished (as we have seen in the past when book blogs start trends).

So, I think that the massive clear-out started by Youngest Child’s move needs to carry on – I really need to reduce the amount of stuff in the house, and unfortunately that includes books…………

A Big Book!

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And so to the chunkster! My love of Dostoevsky’s work will be well known to any reader of this blog, but I’ve tended towards his shorter works recently. However, since starting the Ramblings I’ve managed two really huge works in the form of Solzhenitsyn’s “In the First Circle” and Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” – interesting how they’re both Russian! So I have plunged into “The Brothers Karamazov”, in the Penguin David McDuff translation, and am about 400 pages in. It’s remarkably readable despite being quite dense – fortunately the chapters are relatively short and although there is much debate and discussion, it somehow isn’t as ponderous as parts of Karenina were. Watch this space to see how I get on!

Between The Wars: Roth and Keun

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As I posted last week, I picked these two books up on a recent flit through London. The Roth has been appealing to me for a while, and Keun had come up on an Internet browse as having had a temporary liaison with him. I thought therefore it might be nice to consider the books side by side. Firstly, though, a little about the authors from Wikipedia:

Joseph Roth, born Moses Joseph Roth (September 2, 1894 – May 27, 1939), was an Austrian-Jewish journalist and novelist, best known for his family saga Radetzky March (1932) about the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and for his novel of Jewish life, Job (1930) as well as the seminal essay ‘Juden auf Wanderschaft’ (1927; translated into English as The Wandering Jews), a fragmented account about the Jewish migrations from eastern to western Europe in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution. In the 21st century, publications in English of Radetzky March and of collections of his journalism from Berlin and Paris created a revival of interest in the author.

Irmgard Keun (February 6, 1905 – May 5, 1982) was a German author noteworthy both for her portrayals of life in the Weimar Republic as well as the early years of the Nazi Germany era.

So perhaps they are unlikely compatriots – an Austrian Jew and a younger German – but nevertheless these works *are* interesting when set alongside each other.

Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth

savoy
Once again, Hesperus Press have done us a great service by bringing a work back from oblivion, and publishing it in a beautiful little edition with a striking cover image and French flaps! “Hotel Savoy” was Roth’s second novel, and it’s set in an unspecified border town (apparently based on Lodz, which is now in the Ukraine). Our narrator is Gabriel Dann, a ‘homecomer’ who has fought in the first world war and is returning from a Siberian prison camp. He stops off in town to visit relatives in the hope of finding some money, or even a place to settle, but this town is perhaps not the best place to be…

Dann moves into the hotel of the title, a formerly grand building which still has several floors of richer clientele, but also some upper floors which house a rich variety of characters – performers, money lenders, wanderers, mesmerists – and Stasia, who dances at the Variete and attracts Dann’s attention straight away. But he has a rival for her, in the form of his cousin Alexander. His local family members are that of his late mother’s brother, who seems to have been up to some fishy business with her money, and despite providing him with clothes and cast-offs, they are not forthcoming with any money. Our hero is running out of cash and may end up in hock to Ignatz, the lift operator, who seems to have quite a lot of control over events in the hotel, until an old friend turns up in the form of Zwonimir – a confident, imposing man who completely changes the dynamic surrounding Dann. The men look for work against the background of increasing civil unrest – this is an industrial town, and the workers are striking – and Zwonimir  (a Russian) is fomenting revolution. How will things pan out for Dann and his friends and colleagues at the Hotel Savoy?

Gabriel Dann is a fascinating character, a survivor of war, revolution and all their horrors, who is detached – possibly a condition of his survival. He has become some remote that he cannot even respond properly to Stasia and her love and it is only when he compares himself with Zwonimir and the latter’s camaraderie with those around him that he realises this failing:

“I am on my own. My heart beats for me alone. The strikers are of no interest to me. I have nothing in common with any crowd, and nothing with individuals either. I am a cold creature. In the war I never felt really part of my company. We all lay in the same muck, all waiting for the same death. The difference was that I could only think of my own life and my own death. I walked over corpses, and sometimes it troubled me that I felt no pain.”

Roth writes very beautifully, conjuring up the industrial town battered by the war and revolution; the population equally damaged, many hanging on by the skin of their teeth; the corrupt industrialists who will exploit the workers for whatever gain they can. And then there is Bloomfield – a local boy made good, who has gone to America with his fortune and whose return is the cause of much rumour and excitement. But Bloomfield was once Blumenfeld and his return is not intended to help the many people petitioning him for aid. It is only the local Jewish population who know the truth behind his visit.

The book is full of people yearning for a better world after the destruction of the First World War and revolution (at the time Lodz had been passing backwards and forwards between a variety of countries, and had a mixed populace of Germans, Russians, Poles, Silesians and Jews). It is not a coincidence that Zwonimir ‘s exclamation for something good happening is simply “America!” as that country was perceived by starving Europeans as some kind of promised land. After the climactic events of the book, some of the characters travel away by train in search of something new – the European equivalent of going west.

roth
This was an excellent, gripping read, capturing the dislocation of life post-war and the changing of the old social structures. Although a short work (just over 100 pages, like many Hesperus lost classics), it packed in much action but not at the expense of characterisation. And interestingly, I discovered after a little Internet searching that Roth was a friend of Stefan Zweig (whose books I recently discovered). Both men were remarkable writers, both suffered because of their Jewishness, both met a sad end – and both are excellent writers whose work I really want to explore more.

(As a side note, congratulations to Hesperus for putting a warning at the top of their foreword informing the new reader that plot elements are discussed – I nowadays often avoid introductions to books in case they give too much away, but it’s nice for the publishers to be aware of this too. The book is nicely translated by Jonathan Katz, who also provides the introduction).

After Midnight by Irmgard Keun

“After Midnight” is a lovely little Neversink Library edition, translated by Anthea Bell (who has also produced works by Stefan Zweig) and with an afterword by Geoff Wilkes. The story is set a decade and a half or so after Roth’s novel, in a Germany which is becoming more and more controlled by the Nazis. The story is narrated by Sanna (short for Susanna), a young girl of 19 living with her half-brother Algin and sister-in-law Liska in Frankfurt. Sanna has fled her home in the country as she does not get on that well with her step-mother, initially lodging with her terrible Aunt Adelheid and cousin Franz, whom she is in love with. Sanna’s aunt is a horrid woman, tormenting Franz for a childhood tragedy that was in fact more her fault than anything. When she perceives Sanna is a rival for him, she denounces the girl who flees to Frankfurt, where she has settled down into a life with her family and friends, including her best friend Gerti. The latter is in a difficult position – in love with Dieter, a boy with Jewish blood, but with a family who want to marry her off to a nice SS man. As the girls travel across the city to meet him, they are blocked by a procession: the Führer is passing through.

after midnight
As the story unfolds, we meet other characters in Sanna’s orbit, including the cynical journalist Heini (whom Liska is obsessed with), and the Silias family, whose young daughter Berta has been selected to present a bouquet to Hitler. But Franz has reappeared and Sanna still loves him – how will the night progress; who will survive and who will not; do Sanna and Franz have any chance of a future?

I’m trying to discuss this book without giving too much away, because there are shocks and surprises as the story is told. “After Midnight” is wonderfully written, in the first person and in a very immediate way – we are following Sanna’s life and thoughts and it almost reads like a stream-of-consciousness narrative, so we feel as if we are experiencing the events alongside Sanna. We learn about her route to this point in time in a series of flashbacks, and become really involved with what is happening and her future.

Keun also manages to portray in a remarkably clever way what it was like to live in Nazi Germany; the creeping fear of denunciation; the random prejudice and violence; the way that nasty people could lie and inform on others with no basis; and the despair that overtook many of the independent, thinking people living in this kind of society. Keun never beats you over the head with this, instead using Sanna’s narration and viewpoint on things to demonstrate how it was, which is much more effective.

“It always used to be so cosy when two girls went to the Ladies together. You powdered your noses, and exchanged rapid but important information about men and love. And you combed your hair, and the pair of you wondered whether to let the man you were with take you home, and if they’d get above themselves, and want to kiss you when you didn’t. Or if you did, you’d be terribly worried the man might not think you pretty enough. You exchanged excited advice in the Ladies. It was often silly advice, but still, conversations in the Ladies were fun, and interesting.

But politics is in the air even in the Ladies these days. Gerti says she supposes it’s something if you find one without a lavatory attendant who expects you to say “Heil Hitler” and wants ten pfennigs into the bargain.”

Sanna is younger and in some ways more resilient – she is better able to cope with the complexities of this kind of life. However, Algin is struggling, having had his writings condemned; Heini, at Liska’s party, rather brilliantly dissects everyone there and has harsh words about Algin and his attempts to write acceptable works:

“The dictatorship has made Germany a perfect country, and a perfect country doesn’t need writers. There’s no literature in Paradise. Can’t have writers without imperfections around them, can’t have poets. The purest of lyric poets needs to yearn for perfection. Once you’ve got perfection, poetry stops.”

“After Midnight” shows very clearly and cleverly how hard it was for ordinary German people living under this regime; one where they were just as imprisoned as those who were transported. As one character comments, when considering the state of uncertainly they live in and the constant threat of fake informing,

‘Elvira,’ he says, this place is no better than a concentration camp.’

‘Fancy you not noticing that before,’ says I. ‘We’re all in a concentration camp, the whole nation is, it’s only the Government can go running around free.’

Irmgard Keun
In some ways this is a bleak book, but it also contains optimism and demonstrations of the resilience of the human spirit. Sanna is a wonderful character who we really care for and hope will survive to make a new life. I’m so glad I discovered this wonderful author and I’m really looking forward to reading more of her work.

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Reading these two books in tandem ended up being a fascinating experience. Although the two authors were only briefly linked, their novels do have a relevance in being studied together. In less than two decades, Germany went from a fragmented, crumbling nation trembling on the brink of revolution, to a united, warlike and powerful country controlled by a right-wing caste. The Jewish question and the subject of identity is a strong theme in Roth’s work, and the relevance of the shifting borders of the countries at the time of the story. Keun’s work is from a different point of view, that of an ordinary German girl, who nevertheless is struggling in a changing world. These two books reflect the differences between these two poles and show us how literature can help us to understand the transformations that take place in life. Both are highly recommended!

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