Bricks and Mortar – Clemens Meyer (translated by Katy Derbyshire)

BricksAndMortar

Once upon a time there lived a little girl who was stubborn and inquisitive, and whenever her parents told her to do something she refused. How could things possibly go well for her? One day she said to her parents: “I’ve heard so much about Mother Trudy. I’d like to go visit her. They say that her house is quite strange and that odd things happen there. That’s made me really curious about her.”

The girl’s parents gave her strict orders not to go near the house, and they told her: “Mother Trudy is an evil woman, who does wicked things. If you go to see her, you’re no longer our daughter.”

But the child paid no attention to what her parents said and went to see Mother Trudy anyway. When she arrived at the house, Mother Trudy asked her: “Why are you so pale?”

“I saw something that really scared me.”

“What did you see?”

“On your staircase I saw a black man.”

“That was just the charcoal burner.”

“Then I saw a green man.”

“That was just a huntsman.”

“And then I saw a blood red man.”

“That was just the butcher.”

“Oh, Mother Trudy, I was so scared. I looked through the window and couldn’t see you, but I did see a devil with a fiery head.”

“Aha!” she said. “Then you saw the witch in all her finery. I’ve been hoping that you would come here, and I’ve been waiting for a long time. You can provide me with some light.”

And with that, she turned the girl into a block of wood and threw it on the fire. And when it was blazing, she sat down beside it, warmed herself up, and said: “Now that really does give off a nice bright light.”

  • ‘Mother Trudy’ from “The Bicentennial Edition, The Annotated Brothers Grimm (Translated by Maria Tatar)

 

German Fairy Tales (or Märchen) take on various forms, we’ve all heard of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘Snow White’, probably less so ‘Mother Trudy’, but Clemens Meyer’s “Bricks and Mortar” picks the threads of these classic tales, mentioning a few by name, and then represents them in the reality of modern Germany, from the period just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall to (possibly) the current day. But the tale of a developing, changing Germany is told through the eyes of the sex industry. Can “Little Red Riding Hood” be linked to the “red light industry”? Is “Mother Trudy”, one of the tales recalled by our first narrator, a sex-worker, a metaphor for all female sex-workers?

And this is no short fairy tale, running to 653 pages, it is a long work indeed.

In this novel the character’s blur, the dead talk, people take the lead role and then move back into the shadows, time is not linear, we have one character talking about 9/11 and it is 1999!!! Told in a multitude of voices, you are not always certain who is the narrator, nor their role in this kaleidoscope, rest assured things do draw together the further you travel into this melting pot.

An exploration of capitalism, economies, a unified Germany (and sex), this book, at no stage, enters cliché mode, the football hooligan who becomes a landlord for the apartments used by the prostitutes, gives economic rants about the number of workers, the rooms, euros and then refers to Stanisław Lem’s “Solaris”. An alcoholic ex-jockey spends his nights looking for his young daughter who has become a street worker, a policeman who works on a cold case of three bodies found in the bottom of a peat bog;

am I the only person who sees that? That the markets and the marketplaces are becoming more linked, steel and concrete town halls, the meat markets expanding, the bricks and mortar, sticks and stones, the rock growing, in a red-lit circle where everything’s linked, the rubbish truck, the fat woman, the Coke, the Viagras, the blockers, uppers and downers, lost cats, the right to sexual self-determination, scraps of memory like old police badges, the Angels on their motorbikes, peat mosses, flyovers, sixty-six municipal brothels in 1865, trade chronicles, he burrows in the old files, real estate on silver strings leading all the way to Italy, and the fall of the real-estate boss Silvio Lübbke, three bullets, boom, boom, Dead Peppers Alley, houses for pocket money, clues, clues, the country air so clean and pure, soon they’ll be building here but we’ll stop the diggers, the question is, who brings three bodies out to this mire, the swamped puddle, where everyone knows they won’t decompose, when you can dig holes in the sandy ground of the heath or drive out to the forest lakes like the ‘Blue Eye’, and there must be anglers there who discover the remotest of lakes, the woods arching around the north-eastern belt of the suburbs and incorporated villages to the south, all of if as flat as a pancake. (pp 176-177)

Uppers, downers, alcohol, tobacco and Viagra, each scene the language and style mirrors the drug of choice, with sentences lingering or rapid and short, moving from 1st to 2nd to 3rd person, each scene descends or ascends holding a mirror to a seedy existence, it can be pacy or languid, an hallucinogenic romp, but there is hardly any colour here, it’s all shadows nightclubs, swamps and darklands.

As Meyer says himself, this is an “unorganized flow” (should that read “disorganised flow”?), you need to allow the language, the mood, the environment of each section, voice, character to simply sink in, there is no point in over analysis;

A park opposite. Snow on the trees, towers behind the park, behind the trees, far away or very close by, the distances change, tower blocks connected by bridges, corridors of glass, A temple-like low building with a curved roof among the white and green of the park, for the trees aren’t bare, winter in this city, but days, you remember them now, that smelled of spring, the air suddenly mild and the sky clear, no grey any more from which the snow fell wet on your face, but then another icy gust of wind that grabbed you on your paths through the night, on your way along the neon alleys, along the river, across empty parks like small woods, where are you going? And what are you looking for? (pp 411)

Each section (chapter?) has a reference to “Bricks and Mortar”, in various guises, nicknames, buildings, retaining walls, realigning a river’s flow, stability, and the real estate industry. The juxtaposition of the Communism/Capitalism is subtle throughout, likely due to the blurring timelines, but it is the one constant subplot, at times is can be a little more blatantly pointed out as in;

There was always plenty to see on International Worker’s Day at the racetrack, on the terrace with bubbly and finger food. (pp 460)

A bleak fairy tale of a unified Germany, told through the eyes of a sector that either boomed or plummeted depending upon what side of the wall you came from, and whether you were the exploited or the exploiter. Using a plethora of styles this is a complicated and many layered work, with sub-plots a plenty, including the ex-jockey’s child prostitute daughter, the bodies in the bog, diamond smuggling, to list just a few. There is reference to the Prostitution Act of 2002 and the changes that brought into place, although the one (slight) failing I found with the book is that he female characters appear more as meat or commodities rather than human, with the male characters getting more depth to their motivations and behaviours, however this may be an intentional portrayal as in the industry they are forever changing and are treated in that manner.

After the Wall, things really took off on the building sites. The cranes grew up to the sky, that’s how he’d put it. Shut up. He drives through the suburbs, the high-rise estates, Schönewweide’s not such a pretty meadow as the name suggests, he stopped at some building site, got out of the car and took a few steps toward the scaffolding, breathed in the smell of dust, earth and damp, breathed deeply. Sometimes he wishes he could stand on roofs again, walk along scaffolds, gut flats, make the mixture, breathe in that smell. (pp 584)

A book that is not for the faint-hearted, it contains numerous descriptions of sexual perversions, however not without context and not in any way gratuitous. As I mentioned before this is not a clichéd work, a many levelled construction all mixed up, hallucinogenic style, throw in a hint of dreams, a cemetery, a crematorium, even Japanese scenery, and you’ve only scratched the surface of Clemens Meyer’s novel that was shortlisted for the 2013 German Book Prize. Keeping the tradition of German Fairy Tales, this is a dark dark Fairy Tale, why not throw another young girl on the fire the brighten things up?

Can it win the Man Booker International Prize? It is hard to judge, as this is a book that will certainly polarise the judges, it would, therefore, be a bold decision to declare it the winner, even if it is worthy of the top gong. Personally I rate it highly, however time will tell if my tastes align with the judges (and the Shadow Jury)!

 

 

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Bottom’s Dream – Arno Schmidt (tr. John E. Woods) Pages 96-141

It is probably fitting that my first post for 2017 is another progress update on Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream”, considering I intend to continue my reading journey through this literary revelation, it will probably take up a substantial amount of my 2017 posts. As I have posted in the past though, I will only add what I feel is relevant content over and above the magnificent resource at “The Untranslated” blog https://theuntranslated.wordpress.com/ , for context I will of course cover some similar content.

Where I left you last time, I was at page ninety-five (of 1,496!!!) and the reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s “Mesmeric Revelation”.

I say that these – which are the laws of mesmerism in its general features – it would be supererogation to demonstrate; nor shall I inflict upon my readers so needless a demonstration to-day. My purpose at present is a very different one indeed, I am impelled, even in the teeth of a world of prejudice, to detail without comment the very remarkable substance of a colloquy, occurring between a sleepwalker and myself.

The relevance to “Bottom’s Dream” and the narrative at the time I have completely missed. That is a common occurrence with this work, as you attempt to work out the cryptic references you find many a rabbit hole, or the reference escapes you. It is all part of the immersion.

In the narrative, we have Wilma arguing with Paul and Dan about their drunkenness, of course “POE notoriously loved the bottle to excess, it might very well be that in doing so He kept a latent psychosis tolerable under control”, found in the margin.

There is then a substantial reading and reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Island of the Fay”, a very short story, however we have Wilma taking the lead here, taking Dan’s copy of Poe’s works and pointing out; “for darkness fell over all things, and I beheld her magical figure no more”. We move into an in-depth dissection of this short story, the links to Virgil, the beauty of music alone and they draw the sexual allusions to the wonders of nature.

The Poe expertise coming to the fore as we are advised that the second paragraph of “Fay” is the same argument as the last paragraph of the long prose poem “Eureka”. And the two lines of poetry in Fay, in fact from one of Poe’s own poems “City in the Sea”;

So blend the turrets and shadows there
That all seem pendulous in air, _ _ _
While from a proud tower in the town
Death looed gigantically down.

This becomes;

So blended bank and shadows there,
That each seemed pendulous in air –

A discussion takes place about where “Fay” is situated, some historians believe Babylon, however when they ask the Biblically educated Franziska, she claims “SODOM & GOMORRAH”, a link to Poe’s poem “Al Aaraaf” (Section II) “Of beautiful Gomorrah! O, the wave/Is now upon thee – but too late to save”

More discussions about Fay, including how Poe always refers to circular river islands (in Rodman, Landor, Pym and Fay), which are “downrite impussibilities”. Is Poe referring to the “Isles of Circe”?

Dan then draws a chart in the sand, explaining Poe’s writings;

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The diagram is used to explain how “Fay” moves through the phases cosmology, wanderer, landscape, flora. The same progress in “The Domain of Arnheim”. For “The Facts in the case of M. Valdemar” it moves from sickness to cosmology. “Landor’s Cottage”, wanderer, landscape, flora fauna. “The Fall of the House of Usher” from voyeur (wanderer), landscape, flora fauna, population and death.

We also have the narrator, Dan presenting his theory of the human psyche, “According to GOETHE’s >Faust<” there are two agents, “According to FREUD of 3…”, according to Dan himself, once “circa=50” there are 4!

A reference to “The night thoughts of midwife Walter Vierneissel anent his lost foetus=ideal, whereby he became naught but a man.< JEAN PAUL” an essay by Jean Paul Friedrich Richter. In that work the writer comes across a wunderkid Christian Heinrich Heineken, who only lived for four years but managed to write a book about Danish history aged three – (“some sorda sharp 3-year-old, with a novel inside”) – thanks to Matt at Goodreads for the link here.

The drawing on the sand of Poe’s writing journey is then used by Dan to cast a spell on Wilma, Paul and Franziska, they are put inside the magic circle, Dan spouts about “an exceedingly rare & curious bbookk in Quarto Gothic” and then recites the following poem

Bottom3.jpg

Wilma, Paul and Franziska are then turned into horses, a discussion between “The Old Woman” (Wilma) and “The Young Woman” (Franziska) ensues, generally about stud horses.

Sigmund Freud enters the fray again with a reference “that by >talking it out<, writing it down etc, one can free oneself from all sorda things? So that the ejaculation of a short story? : Would mean the jettisoning of a complex.:?<<” Note – Question marks in the text can have reference to human movement, twisting back and forth between two people in discussion.

“Naiades” make an appearance in the side column, the freshwater nymphs of Greek mythology, their relevance unknown to me, no specific reference to “Undine” the other water nymph featuring heavily in the opening pages, appeared to me, however it could be hidden in the depths of the text.

The Poe translators and their daughter do return to human form. Wilma, with one of her numerous rebuttals;

>>Are You nòt=aware that many poets place positive value on writing >automatically<? That is, on letting their subcon become visible & productive?<< . / (I am aware of it, my angel; but I do not hold the process in high esteem.)/-):

We then have a discussion about Poe’s overuse of the word “lolling”, as these revelations are highlighted they change your reading of Poe and all of a sudden you also notice the over use of certain words “crystal”, “lolling”, Schmidt changing your own perception and reading habits.

Moving onto Poe’s “William Wilson” and there is a reading – to display Poe’s dislike of his own name (there is also a reference to “SCHMIDT”!!!)

Further discussions about Poe’s favourite books, “Undine” (which I have covered before and did read as part of this immersion), “The Bride of Lammermoor” and “Lalla Rukh” by Thomas Moore (this is a 200 page poem, methinksnot reading this one!!! Maybe if I was retired!!) Dan gives us a precis so that will suffice for now.

Book one “The Horrorfield” ends with Dan giving the young Franziska advice “devote oneself, with discipline & diligence, to the preservation, the understanding (later p’r’aps even the production) of works of art”

The section ending with the interaction;

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Thanks to Nathan and Matt at Goodreads for helping me out here, Dan is counting to ten in Wendish, Franziska saying “at the same pace and compass” and “always by my side” in Spanish. A pact between the narrator and his sixteen year old subject of his desires, an orgasmic ending to the travels through the field.

Bottom’s Dream – Arno Schmidt (tr. John E. Woods) Pages 71-80

On the surface, it appears to have been a slow week on the “Bottoms Dream” progress charts, a mere nine pages…at this rate I should be done sometime in 2019!!!

The nine pages of narrative contain further discussions on Poe’s works and a lot more references to “Undine” by Friedrich Heinrich Karl de la Motte, Baron Fouqué, the work I reviewed during the week, “the entire work bubbles=over with the most obfayus water symbolism”. As Arno Schmidt advises (through the narration of Dan) “For one Fouqué there are fifty Molières”.

The debate about Poe’s works contains the instruction “reread, in cold blood, the end of >ELEONORA< sometime: there’s no longer hymnic prose but rather a very culious meowing with a heavily swollen tongue<<”. So, Poe’s “Eleonora” I read:

They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.

A nice early quote to align with Arno Schmidt’s references to Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams” and to his (narrator Dan’s) theory of etyms.

A story where the narrator tells of his undying love for his cousin Eleonora, although he tells us he is made in later life we are meant to understand that he is sane in the earlier sections of his story. The tale set up for the reader to wonder, what is the source of our narrator’s madness?

The loveliness of Eleonora was that of the Seraphim; but she was a maiden artless and innocent as the brief life she had led among the flowers. No guile disguised the fervor of love which animated her heart, and she examined with me its inmost recesses as we walked together in the Valley of the Many Colored-Grass, and discoursed of the mighty changes which had lately taken place therein.

The valley where our narrator and Eleonora live has become stunning since they have declared their love for each other, voluminous clouds, murmurs that swell, flowers grow where none had been known before, the tints of the green carpet deepen, ruby-red asphodels spring up…the etyms are rife.

SPOLIER ALERT for this short story, another Poe one AND “Undine” – “Eleonora” is the tale of two wives, as is the other Poe references story “Ligeia”.

“Ligeia” opens with an epigraph by Joseph Glanvill, a quote which will be referenced several times throughout the story itself;

And the will therein lieth, which dieth not. Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigor? For God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness. Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.

Very similar to the story of “Eleonora” this story tells of an undying love for Ligeia, whose physical features are described in vivid detail in the opening sections;

Those eyes! those large, those shining, those divine orbs! they became to me twin stars of Leda, and I to them devoutest of astrologers.

Another case of passionate writing about a woman the narrator dearly loves;

Of all the women whom I have ever known, she, the outwardly calm, the ever-placid Ligeia, was the most violently a prey to the tumultuous vultures of stern passion. And of such passion I could form no estimate, save by the miraculous expansion of those eyes which at once so delighted and appalled me — by the almost magical melody, modulation, distinctness and placidity of her very low voice — and by the fierce energy (rendered doubly effective by contrast with her manner of utterance) of the wild words which she habitually uttered.

This story containing the opium infused ramblings of a man grieving through the death of both of his wives, including all the trademark horror we (incorrectly) associate with all of Poe’s works, gothic castles, moving tapestries, flickering shadows, spirits and more.

And to continue the sexual references and Dan’s obsession with the young Franziska, there is a brief discussion about her bedding, which then aligns (in the far-right column) to the following text;

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A text that refers again to Fouqué’s “Undine”.

A break in the narration with a new section commenting with “>CROSSING THE BROOK,”, in the far right column there is the following reference “(WILLIAM TURNER; ɪ of my favorites)”

crossing-the-brook-jpglarge

Source www.artrenewal.org

Other literary references abound in the section with discussions with Franziska referring to “Callistris” (which = penis in Rabelais), there’s a passing reference to “those eternally dripping moons” in Poe’s poems and the book by Oppolzer “Canon of Eclipses”, a work published in 1887, which is a compilation of 8,000 solar and 5,200 lunar eclipses between the years 1,270 BC and 2,161 CE. Of course this is a sexual reference, with Dan talking of an eclipse being the same as “>something lacking< – : impotence.”

Further Poe discussions, educational talks to Franziska, as we know our other three characters are all Poe experts, mentioning for Poe it was always summer “winter does not exist”, “even in spots where it should be coldasst, at the pole, it just keeps getting’ hotter!<<” and the fact “>That in His work children appear nowhere & never…<< and “He never assigned a >short’n’plumpy< to be a heroine” – with a reference back to Lady Ligeia again.

We then have two of Poe’s lengthier works references, the prose poem “Eureka” and the story “The Mystery of Marie Roget”, that means a fair amount of Edgar Allan Poe reading over the coming week, two stories not being enough, the other two, more substantial works, are next up on my reading agenda, hence nine pages in a week!!!

Undine – Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué

undine

Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream”, which I am slowly making my way through, in the early sections there are several references to Friedrich Heinrich Karl de la Motte, Baron Fouqué’s most popular work “Undine”. As part of my unravelling and immersion into Schmidt’s book, I purchased and read the novella from the German Romantic period.  First published in 1811, the same year as Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” (originally titled “Elinor and Marianne”) and a year before the German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published their “Children’s and Household Tales”, “Undine” tells the tale of a watersprite, a nymph with the unique ability to assume the human form.

Following the well-worn Romantic theme of female characters being chaste, subservient, obedient, chaste, coquettish slaves, “Undine” tells of Sir Huldbrand of Ringstetten, a knight who lives in a castle near the source of the Danube. A chivalrous man who travels into a “very wild forest, which, both from its gloom and pathless solitude as well as from the wonderful creatures and illusions with which it was said to abound, was avoided by most people except in cases of necessity.” He does so on the wishes of a noble woman, Bertalda. In the forest he comes across a fisherman, his wife and their adopted daughter, Undine.

The knight interrupted the fisherman to draw his attention to a noise, as of a rushing flood of waters, which had caught his ear during the old man’s talk, and which now burst against the cottage-window with redoubled fury. Both sprang to the door. There they saw, by the light of the now risen moon, the book which issued from the wood, wildly overflowing its banks, and whirling away stones and branches of trees in its sweeping course. The storm, as if awakened by the tumult, burst forth from the mighty clouds which passed rapidly across the moon; the lake roared under the furious lashing of the wind; the trees of the little peninsula groaned from root to topmost bought, and bent, as if reeling, ober the surging waters. “Undine! For Heaven’s sake, Undine!” cried the two men in alarm. No answer was returned, and regardless of every other consideration, they ran out of the cottage, one in this direction, and the other in that, searching and calling.

As a young girl Undine had appeared at the fisherman’s door, to naturally replace their daughter who had fallen into the lake and disappeared. As a young girl Undine (who chose her own name to be used for christening) spoke of golden castles and crystal domes. Whilst both the nameless fisherman and his wife (who is a lightly sketched character) question Undine’s sanity they are not aware that she is in fact a water nymph who has taken human form. She lacks a soul, but can gain one by marrying a mortal – and conveniently for our tale the knight in shining armour, literally, rides into her world.

A mysterious tale with water, moisture references throughout, as Undine marries the knight and her evil uncle, who lives in creeks, fountains, lakes attempts to get Sir Huldbrand to “forsake” Undine near water so she will lose her human soul and return to life as a watersprite. Light romanticism with allusions to sexual activity, the illustrations are more risqué than the text itself, here is the opening paragraph from the chapter titled “The Day After The Wedding”:

The fresh light of the morning awoke the young married pair. Wonderful and horrible dreams had disturbed Huldbrand’s rest; he had been haunted by spectres, who, grinning at him by stealth, had tried to disguise themselves as beautiful women, and from beautiful women they all at once assumed the faces of dragons, and when he started up from these hideous visions, the moonlight shone pale and cold into the room; terrified he looked at Undine, who still lay in unaltered beauty and grace. Then he would press a light kiss upon her rosy lips, and would fall asleep again only to be awakened by new terrors. After he had reflected on all this, now he was fully awake, he reproached himself for any doubt that could have led him into error with regard to his beautiful wife. He begged her to forgive him for the injustice he had done her, but she only held out to him her fair hand, sighed deeply and remained silent. But a glance of exquisite fervour beamed from her eyes such as he had never seen before, carrying with it the full assurance that Undine bore him no ill-will. He then rose cheerfully and left her, to join his friends in the common apartment.

undine1The fantasy fairy tale language a pleasure to read, bringing back childhood memories of similar tales (although I’m not sure I had tales like these to read, ageing memory getting me!!!) And reading this work with an Arno Schmidt bent made some of the references to “Crystal” (see an earlier “Bottom’s Dream” post about the etym there) did make me smile.

“You must know, my loved one, that there are beings in the elements which almost appear like mortals, and which rarely allow themselves to become visible to your race. Wonderful salamanders glitter and sport in the flames; lean and malicious gnomes dwell deep within the earth; spirits, belonging to the air, wander through the forests; and a vast family of water spirits live in the lakes and streams and brooks. In resounding domes of crystal, through which the sky looks in with its sun and stars, these latter spirits find their beautiful abode; lofty trees of coral with blue and crimson fruits gleam in their gardens; they wander over the pure sand of the sea, and among lovely variegated shells, and amid all exquisite treasures of the old world, which the present is no longer worthy to enjoy; all these the floods have covered with their secret veils of silver, and the noble monuments sparkle below, stately and solemn, and bedewed by the loving waters which allure from them many a beautiful moss-flower and entwining cluster of sea-grass. Those, however, who dwell there, are very fair and lovely to behold, and for the most part, are more beautiful than human beings. Many a fisherman has been so fortunate as to surprise some tender mermaid, as she rose above the waters and sang. He would then tell afar of her beauty, and such wonderful beings have been given the name of Undines. You, however, are now actually beholding an Undine.”

As Sir Huldbrand learns of Undine’s background and they travel back through the haunted forest to advise Bertalda that no harm has befallen the hero, the story turns into a romantic love triangle, as we know Sir Huldbrand cannot forsake Undine (she is totally in his power) near water or she will lose her soul and Bertalda had romantic feelings for the knight prior to his departure and the interruptions by Undine’s uncle Kühleborn we know this tale is not going to end happily.

But in a region, otherwise so pleasant, and in the enjoyment of which they had promised themselves the purest delight, the ungovernable Kühleborn began, undisguisedly, to exhibit his power of interference. This was indeed manifested in mere teasing tricks, for Undine often rebuked the agitated waves, or the contrary winds, and then the violence of the enemy would be immediately humbled; but again the attacks would be renewed, and again Undine’s reproofs would become necessary, so that the pleasure of the little party was completely destroyed. The boatmen too were continually whispering to each other in dismay, and looking with distrust at the three strangers, whose servants even began more and more to forebode something uncomfortable, and to watch their superiors with suspicious glances. Huldbrand often said to himself: “This comes from like not being linked with like, from a man uniting himself with a mermaid!” Excusing himself as we all love to do, he would often think indeed as he said this: “I did not really know that she was a sea-maiden, mine is misfortune, that every step I take is disturbed and haunted by wild caprices of her race, but mine is not the fault.”

Throughout the male hero does not take responsibility for his actions, falling for a stunningly beautiful woman, asking her to marry, taking her to a new home, sharing his love with another woman and “mine is not the fault”!!! An interesting tale with the forlorn swooning woman falling for the knight, gaining a soul, holding control through the evil spirit intervention, however wanting to keep her human soul, she is wholly dependent upon the male lead, she is his subservient, obedient, coquettish slave. Often falling into tears to manipulate the hero on horseback the water nymph never takes control of her fate, knowing she is trapped by the curse that the male can forsake her at any time.

This chivalrous tale has an interesting ending (which I will not give away) and one that is a little more pleasant than the ending of the Grimm Brother’s tale “Mother Trudy” – a tale I read as it was referenced Clemens Meyer’s “Bricks and Mortar” (translated by Katy Derbyshire), a recent translated release. The Grimm tale ending as follows:

And with that, she turned the girl into a block of wood and threw it on the fire. And when it was blazing, she sat down beside it, warmed herself up, and said: “Now that really does give off a nice bright light.”

The edition of “Undine” I purchased is published by Dedalus European Classics and interestingly a translator is not credited, the introduction telling us “in 1897 alone, two new translations were published, of which the present is one.” A tale that brings the innocence of nature to life through a character and the suffering that is humanity befalling her as she gains a soul, Undine moving from innocence to sorrow simply through marriage, or through gaining a human soul.

A worthwhile transgression from the reading of “Bottom’s Dream” and I am sure there will be many more references in Schmidt’s novel that I will come across in my journey…..back to it.

A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler (translated by Charlotte Collins) – Man Booker International Prize 2016

It has been a very busy few weeks here at Messenger’s Booker, the reading of the longlist for the inaugural Man Booker International Prize longlist continues, however the reviews have been a little thin on the ground as something had to give whilst I juggled numerous projects. I’m fully geared up to catch up, so over the coming fortnight expect a review every couple of days as I work my way through the backlog and reveal my thoughts on each of the works on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize longlist.
Starting the ball rolling with the novel “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins, and originally published as ‘Ein ganzes Leben’. This is a simple tale of Egger, his whole life;
Andreas Egger was considered a cripple, but he was strong. He was a good worker, didn’t ask for much, barely spoke, and tolerated the heat of the sun in the fields as well as the biting cold in the forest. He took on any kind of work and did it reliably and without grumbling. He was as good with a scythe as he was with a pitchfork. He turned the freshly mown grass, loaded dung onto carts, and lugged rocks and sheaves of straw from the fields. He crawled over the soil like a beetle and climbed between rocks to retrieve lost cattle. He knew in which direction to chop different kinds of wood, how to set the wedge, hone the saw and sharpen the axe. He seldom went to the inn, and he never allowed himself more than a meal and a glass of beer or Krauterer. He scarcely spent a single night in a bed; usually he slept on hay, in attics, in small side rooms and in barns, alongside the cattle. Sometimes, on mild summer nights, he would spread a blanket somewhere on a freshly mown meadow, lie on his back and look up at the starry sky. Then he would think about his future, which extended infinitely before him, precisely because he expected nothing of it. And sometimes, if he lay there long enough, he had the impression that beneath his back the earth was softly rising and falling, and in moments like these he knew that the mountains breathed.
Opening in 1933, our novel is set high in the mountains and our protagonist Egger is attempting to take the local goatherd into town, on his back, as the old man is dying.  The natural world being one of the main players here, as Egger and the goatherd battle the blizzard and the elements to avoid death’s clutches. From the early pages we understand that the relationship between this ordinary man, Egger, and the natural world, will be a main theme throughout. As is the close relationship with death;
‘The Cold Lady…She walks on the mountain and steals through the valley. She comes when she wants and takes what she needs. She has no face and no voice. The Cold Lady comes and takes and goes. That’s all. She seizes you as she passes and takes you with her and sticks you in some hole. And in the last patch of sky you see before they finally shovel the earth in over you she reappears and breathes on you. And all that’s left for you then is darkness. And the cold.’
This work is a simple tale of a simple man, a whole life, taking the reader through the arrival of technology in the mountain village, the Second World War, marriage, simple work on the land or on the cable cars, with the shadow of the all-powerful, all pervading nature always shimmering on the horizon;
As he walked along the road that ended just behind the village, he had a strange empty feeling in his stomach. Deep down, he felt sorry for the old farmer, He thought of the milking stool and wished he could have a chair and a warm blanket, and at the same time he wished he could have death. He went on along the narrow path up the mountain, all the way to Pichlersenke. Up here the ground was soft and the grass short and dark. Drops of water trembled on the tips of the blades, making the whole meadow glitter as if studded with glass beads. Egger marvelled at these tiny, trembling drops that clung so tenaciously to the blades of grass, only to fall at last and seep into the earth or dissolve to nothing in the air.
In a novel that has very limited dialogue, this reflective piece takes us from youthful innocence to aged indifference. Later in the novel Egger attends a funeral and whilst trudging along in the incessant rain, he catches sight of a child watching television and laughing. This juxtaposition of comfort, progress and innocence against battle worn, dreary, weary and aged is one of the many wonderful elements of a celebratory tale.

Yes, this is a simple story, but it is a celebration of a simple man, a recognition of the ordinary, making such extraordinary. Putting major events, such as the Second World War, into the background, they are just further experiences in Egger’s life, this work presents ‘a whole life’ of a person on the periphery, but the reflections and experiences highlight that no soul is insignificant.
A meditative novel, written in simple language, which pauses on the wonders of the natural world, the mountains, the sunrise, the moon, the stars, the ice, the rocks, man conquering the heights with engineering, simple beauty such as the dew on the grass and always being celebrated, however nature being untamed is always present too, an example being avalanches.
As a contender for the Man Booker International Prize? Possibly not, without the experimentation of language that others display, nor a political edge, nor strong allegory, this book is one that will possibly slip at the shortlist hurdle, but as a poetic piece celebrating the ordinary this is a worthwhile addition to any translated fiction collection.

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The Giraffe’s Neck – Judith Schalansky (translated by Shaun Whiteside) – 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

I’m torn!! Not the first time this has happened, and possibly won’t be the last, however with this month being “Women In Translation Month”, the angst is a little more to the fore. This month I want to do my best to highlight the richness, diversity, depth of fiction (and poetry – but more on that later) available for your reading pleasure, as well as highlighting the fact that women only represent approximately 30% of writers translated into English. So what to do when you come across a book you simply don’t like? I have a few options available to me:
  1. Don’t write a review. This is at times my preferred option, and I have used this on a number of occasions simply to avoid being critical of a writer or translator or publisher. In fact I have stopped receiving review copies from one publisher as they must believe I don’t read their books; I actually do but don’t like them!!!
  2. Write a review and only point out the highlights of the work. This approach is not my style; I don’t want people thinking every book I read is a four or five star rated piece.
  3. Go “hell for leather” and rip the book to shreds, again, not my style (although I have been quite forceful with my reviews on a couple of books, both best sellers and there are supporters of this approach); or
  4. Just point out why I don’t like it. Soft option I suppose

So I’m going the soft option here, I’m sure this work has a number of supporters, and given it made the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist earlier this year, there are supporters from the literary world.
In school I did not study biology, in fact my bent towards the sciences was extremely limited, so when people speak of Charles Darwin, I think evolution and survival of the fittest. When somebody mentions “annidation” or “monoculture” I have no idea what they are talking about, so when pages in a fiction novel has these words as headings, my eyes glaze over, my head gets closer to my shoulders (ie. My neck disappears) and my eyes scan across the page taking little notice of the words in front of me.
“In a nutshell, “The Giraffe’s Neck” features Inge Lohmark, our protagonist, an ageing teacher of biology at the Charles Darwin High School in East Germany, in an area which is slowly losing its population. The obvious “survival of the fittest” analogy is possibly part of the repartee. (Possibly using the word “analogy” in a review of a book about “biology” is a bad choice – I’m not going to change it though).
In short, sharp, regimented prose the feel of East Germany is meant to be displayed. This is a characteristic I did not like in Julia Franck’s “Back to Back” (translated by Anthea Bell)  nor have I become a fan since:
It just wasn’t worth it, dragging the weak ones along with you. They were nothing but millstones that held the rest back. Born recidivists. Parasites on the healthy body of the class. Sooner or later the dimmer bulbs would be left behind anyway. It was advisable to confront them with the truth as early as possible, rather than giving them another chance after each failure. With the truth that they simply didn’t meet the conditions required to become a fully-fledged member of society. What was the point of being hypocritical? Not everyone could do it. Any why should they? There were duds in every year. With some, you could be happy if you managed to instil a few fundamental virtues. Politeness, punctuality, cleanliness. It was a shame they’d stopped giving out citizenship grades. Hard work. Cooperation. Contribution. Proof of the shortcomings of the present educational system.
Every second page contains a heading in the top right hand corner, alluding to the content, for example “menopause”
How tired she was all of a sudden. Sit down. Just for a minute. Rest her head against the wall. In the mirror above the washbasin part of her head. Her forehead. Her wrinkles. Her hairline, the hair grey, for over twenty years. Deep breaths for a few minutes. The blue-green tracksuit in her lap. Legs bare, cheesy pale, as if there hadn’t been a summer. Her palms felt cool on her thighs. The warmth surged up in waves. To her head. Over her eyes a flicker and suddenly sweat. A textbook hot flush. But it wasn’t in a textbook. They didn’t actually learn about that. No one told them about the body’s second transformation. Creeping renaturation. Atrophy of the uterus. Discontinuance of the period. Dry vagina. Faded flesh. It was only ever about blossoming. Autumn. My goodness. Yes, it was autumn. Rustling leaves. Where would a second spring come from now? The idea was ridiculous. Bringing in the harvest. Fetching in the fishing-nets. Thanksgiving mood. Anticipation of the pension. Evening of life. Mists and mellow fruitfulness. But where did that weariness come from? The weather, or the first day of school?
As mentioned there is quite possibly a linkage to the headings and a biological sequence, surely this has more to offer than the idea that a school, an ageing teacher are now simply too slow for the modern world and can no longer survive. But not having any background in species, the thin thread of a monther who has no relationship with her husband, who has lost her daughter overseas and who categorises her students as “feral”, “colourless”, joyless” or having “no prospect of improvement” is too skeletal for my tiny mind.
Having said that, the book does contain a few lucid moments:
In the old days, the children were supposed to be brought up to be progressive, peace-loving people; now they were to be free. And freedom was nothing but an insight into necessity. No one was free. And no one was supposed to be. Even the compulsory schooling was nothing but a state-organised deprivation of freedom. Concocted by the education minister’s conference. It wasn’t about communicating knowledge, it was about getting the children used to a regular day and the dominant ideology of the moment. That meant an assurance of dominance. A few years of supervision to prevent the worst. Gymnasium as a way of keeping them quiet until they reached maturity. Good citizens. Obedient underlings. A constant supply for the pension system.

As mentioned above this work was longlisted for the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (along with four other German works) and I as part of my Shadow Jury duties it was a book which fell through the cracks (you try reading fifteen works in a month!!!). Fortunately it is not a book I would have listed in my top six for the year, and personally I have it at the bottom of the pile (along with a couple of others). If you know a bit about Charles Darwin, or you enjoy East German tales prior to the wall coming down (although this was written in 2011) you may enjoy this a little more than me. Nice artworks throughout though, and relevant to the text, just don’t know why they’re there, because our author can draw too?