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The silence of the past and the madness of the 20th century – introducing V&Q Books! @vqbooks

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Something slightly different here on the Ramblings today! I don’t as a rule take part in Book Tours and the like, preferring to plough my own furrow, so to speak. However, when I was approached by a fascinating new imprint, dedicated to publishing works translated from German-based authors, I just couldn’t resist… 😀

V&Q Books is headed up by translator Katy Derbyshire, whose work I encountered most recently with the excellent “Dark Satellites“. An imprint of the German publisher Verlag Voland & Quist, its stated aim is to export what they call ‘remarkable writing from Germany’ – and a very laudable one it is, I think! So the focus is on books written in any language by German-based writers, and three titles have been released initially: “Paula” by Sandra Hoffmann, translated by Katy Derbyshire; “Daughters” by Lucy Fricke, translated by Sinéad Crowe; and “Journey Through a Tragicomic Century” by Francis Nenik, again translated by Katy Derbyshire. Frankly, all three sounded absolutely fascinating, but I have read two of the titles and am happy to share my thoughts on them here.

Paula

It’s often said that there’s a thin line between love and hate, and that’s certainly demonstrated in Sandra Hoffmann’s intriguing piece of autofiction. The Paula of the title is the author’s grandmother, and much of the family’s life has been informed by silence; a silence represented by the German word schweigen, defined as deliberately choosing to remain silent, rather than just having a quiet moment. Hoffmann’s mother was born in 1946, and Paula had always refused to reveal who the father was. A devout Swabian Catholic (Swabia is a region in south-western Germany), Paula brought up her daughter single-handedly despite the expected slurs; and as Hoffmann is growing up, her grandmother lives with the family, dominating the domestic set-up in many ways with her silence; a silence which damages not only Paula’s daughter but also her granddaughter.

So Hoffmann sets out to try to make sense of Paula’s life, by exploring her own memories, those of her mother and her great-aunt; and she also feverishly scrutinises the family photographs, trying to pin down who could have been the grandfather, and inventing imaginary histories for the men in the pictures. And true or not, Hoffmann gradually peels away the layers of silence and gives her grandmother some kind of story.

It is impossible to invent the truth. Precision is essential. Fiction is the only way to close the gaps between image and image, fragment and fragment.

It’s an intriguing work, as fragmented perhaps as memory is, yet compelling reading. Hoffmann’s own memoirs of growing up and the damage caused by the unspoken secrets are often painful, and the controlling, instrusive behaviour of Paula is very hard to take. You feel the anger of the young Sandra, unable to deal with the smothering attention of her grandmother which is perhaps driven by Paula’s own behaviour and experiences in the past. There is baggage between Hoffmann’s mother and Paula which infects the whole household’s relationships, although affects Hoffmann’s brother less; and this does make me wonder what was unsaid in the family about the post-War context (Swabia was overrun by various troops when the Nazis fell) and whether Paula is dead set on protecting her granddaughter from any possible danger.

However, as much as this is a book about Paula, it is also book about Hoffmann, who she is and the kind of person she became. While looking back on her childhood and her family life, she reveals the emotional damage done and her need to try to understand what was unsaid. The suffocating presence of Catholic religion and guilt, the inability to escape her grandmother’s constant supervision, and Paula’s refusal to respect Hoffmann’s personal boundaries, all reveal a troubling upbringing. Her exploration of the past, through memories and photographs, reminded me in some ways of the writing of Annie Ernaux; although Hoffmann has a voice all of her own. The book is described as autofiction, a term that’s becoming increasingly used for the kind of books I read which straddle the divide between the real and the imagined; and it’s certainly apt here, as Hoffmann pieces together what she feels she knows, while imagining what could have been the reality of her grandmother’s life and secrets.

Paula is a multi-layered book which deserves a much more thorough exploration than I can give it here. Suffice to say, it’s a powerful, deeply emotional and complex read and definitely deserves to be in the vanguard of V&Q’s publishing launch.

Journey Through a Tragicomic Century

This rather intriguing book is subtitled “The Absurd Life of Hasso Grabner” which sums up rather neatly much of what’s happening in it! Francis Nenik is a pseudonym; the author prefers to remain anonymous, though reveals he was born in the 1980s and lives in Liepzig. Nenik has published widely and a previous work has also been translated by Derbyshire. A man of relative obscurity, then – much like the subject of his book…

Hasso Grabner was also an author, but an extremely obscure one; born in 1911 in Leipzig, he lived through some of the most dramatic periods of the 20th century in Germany, dying in 1976. His work has mostly been forgotten; and Nenik sets out to tell the story of a writer consigned to oblivion.

Memory, as every child knows, is the basis of history. Ideology, however – as will become clear later on – is the form in which history is expressed.

Grabner’s life really does live up to the descriptions of tragicomic and absurd. A communist by belief, he was an anti-fascist fighter and for his pains ended up in Buchenwald Concentration Camp (and I was slightly shocked by the realisation that such places existed well before the start of WW2). He managed to survive, and during the war was conscripted to a Penal Battalion, supposedly to fight for Germany; nevertheless when stationed on Corfu he still managed to warn local partisans to get Jewish occupants out while they could. Ironically, he was awarded the German Iron Cross after the German withdrawal from Greece… After the war, he ended up in East Germany under communist control, where he lived a life working in industry as well as writing and having regular run-ins with the authorities; he does, of course, end up with a fat Stasi file…

It’s the same old game. Some make history and others re-write it.

Even a brief outline of Grabner’s dramatic life gives you a flavour of what a strange man he was, living through strange times; but what makes this book a particularly outstanding read is the method of telling. The book is described as “narrative non-fiction” and it’s such an entertaining piece of writing! Nenek tells the story of Grabner with verve, the book crackles with snappy commentary and a wry sense of the ironies of history, and it’s about as unlike the traditional biography as you’ll get – which I really loved! The idiosyncratic style complements the content brilliantly here, with the almost conversational narrative really emphasising the stupidity of much of the 20th century; for example, Nenik says obliquely of Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany:

However, history ignores the principles proclaimed by the communists, takes a right turn driven by millions on 30 January 1933 and erects its own dictatorship.

Grabner himself emerges as a stubborn man, determined to do things his own way and somehow managing to survive in the GDR despite his inflexibility and refusal to toe the line; and I got the sense that his story was probably just one of so many which could be told about people of the 20th century enduring horrific events (which do appear here, though mostly in a reasonably minor key) and having to remake some kind of existence afterwards.

Memory, that much is clear once and for all, is the basic fabric of history. Ideology, however, is the form in which history is written, struck out, abbreviated.

There’s an interesting coda to the book where Nenik reveals how he came to write it; and that makes fascinating reading too, although I shall say nothing about it because it’s best read when you’ve finished “Journey…” This was a brilliant and compelling read, and I absolutely loved it.

*****

So my first experience of V&Q books has been a really positive one, with two very different but equally fascinating works; and as both authors are new names to me I would never have read them without the prompt of these editions, so kudos to the new imprint. I think this is an excellent initiative, particularly if it’s going to bring previously unheard voices to an Anglophone audience. I have to comment on the actual physical books themselves, too. Obviously, an important part of bookselling, particularly for independent imprints, is branding and V&Q have certainly nailed it with their bright and distinctive design, plus those all-important French flaps! But of course the crucial thing is the content, and on the evidence of my readings so far, V&Q are certainly going to be a publisher to watch!

If you want to get a flavour of the prose, there’s a nice little reading from it here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zccoImjOprI&ab_channel=V%26QBooks

 

“….the shadows moved, and nothing fitted together any more…” #fitzcarraldofortnight @FitzcarraldoEds

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Dark Satellites by Clemens Meyers
Translated by Katy Derbyshire

On to my second new read for our Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight and it’s back to blue cover fiction; this time in the form of a rather wonderful translated collection of short works by Clemens Meyers. Meyers is an author new to me; born in Germany, he held a variety of jobs before turning to writing, and his most recent novel “Bricks and Mortar” has been longlisted, shortlisted and won a number of prizes. I’ve seen that novel described as “hallucinatory” and “modernist” and I think those are words that could definitely be applied to “Dark Satellites”.

Set in contemporary Germany, Meyers’ stories are loosely gathered into three sections, each with a short, fragmentary opening piece. His works tell the tales of maginalised characters; from a lonely train cleaner making friends with a hairdresser, through a man unable to cope with his house being burgled to the casual friendship between a retired jockey and a railway company clerk, these are people who live on the margins. This is a Germany reunited after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but there are echoes of the past on both sides of the Wall, and the new world which has been built is not necessarily a good place for all. The settings are often a kind of edgeland, peripheral to any new centre, and many of the protagonists are struggling to make sense of the changes which have taken place around them and our modern multi-cultural world.

They came from a realm of shadows that had formed over decades in the rear yards of the Coal Quarter, small factories with round, soot-blackened chimneys where pigeons perched when no smoke rose from the outlets, workshops, coal merchants, dilapidated buildings with small birch forests growing on their roofs, empty, decaying factories, passageways to the road and to the light, but the light outside was murky too; shadows lay over these yards where I’d met them many years ago, and as I returned to them now the sun was shining, and nothing fitted together any more.

The writing in these stories is extraordinary; Meyers favours long sinuous sentences, sometimes a paragraph in length, which are often quite beautiful and almost have a hypnotic effect while you’re reading. Time is a fluid concept in Meyers’ stories and the narratives slip back and forth between past and present, different settings and varying points of the lives of his protagonists. This fluidity adds to the sense of dislocation his characters are experiencing and the collection title is apt; these characters are satellites of the modern world, rather than direct participants.

Clemens Meyers by Enno Seifried via Wikimedia Commons

I can see why the description “hallucinatory” was used for Meyers’ writing, as you *do* have to pay attention while the narrative regularly shifts time and place, blurring any chronological continuity. Nevertheless, that attention will bring great rewards as these are stories that most definitely deserve the word haunting – the moving characters and their lives stay with you, and the world which Meyers conjures is at times like dream-like and always vivid.

So “Dark Satellites” is another wonderful release from Fitzcarraldo which really does live up to their ethos of focusing on “ambitious, imaginative and innovative writing”. Meyers’ book is all of those things, peopled with memorable characters, and I highly recommend it!

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