a blank slate

a blank slate

Tag: german

On comfort needs, comfort reads and reading Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

For an entire month, I’ve found myself writing posts and deleting them, because they did not sound right enough or because they revealed too much or too little. I have never suffered this kind of writer’s block in all these years, something that led me to avoid the blog not for lack of things to write, but just because of this nagging feeling that I wasn’t being honest to myself. Things are going all kinds of crazy this year, but that has never affected my blog before. The blog has always been a comfort zone; a safe place to turn to; somewhere I can be me. Maybe I’ve just lost my sense of me-ness.

It’s kind of weird that I should feel this way; much more so because I clearly seem unable to explain it. But I have been reading quite a bit. And I do have things to rant about. I went on an amazing trip to England in the beginning of May. And the month ended with me starting a book club here in Bangalore, which has been going adorably well also. So loaded with things to say and lacking the right way; here I am trying something out. I feel sort of like a little lamb lost in my own pen, but nevertheless, write I must. And I will write about comfort reads, in the effort to rekindle my blog love. 
Over the years I have noticed, whenever I have a bad spell for whatever reason, there are certain books I keep going back to. Comfort reads, fiction and non-fiction, and even short stories. The one to start this post-writing-spree with is (various translations of and the original) Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke.
A quick background. Rainer Maria Rilke was an Austrian poet who in a very intense, very mystical style. He was perhaps best known for his Book of Hours (Studenbuch) which was three volumes worth of religious poetry. After the publication of the Book of Hours, Rilke began to earn popularity as a poet, quite early on in his career. 
So there we have him: Rilke, a renowned poet who, once upon a time, received a request from an amateur poet to read and critique his writing. Rilke denied, replying in a letter that a real poet should not care for another’s opinion on his works and asked his amateur fan to be true to himself. Frank Kappus, the young poet who sent a letter to Rilke, received a lot more than literary critique, and ended up exchanging a number of letters with Rilke. Rilke wrote back giving Kappus advice on everything from love, sex, loss, art and beauty. These replies Kappus published under the title Letters to a Young Poet. 
There is nothing so beautiful and revealing as a well-written letter. It’s like a slice of someone’s soul. With every read, I’m stunned by how honest the letters are. The very idea that Rilke took out the time to write these is something to appreciate, but the sincerity of his writing is astonishing. Rilke and Kappus never met, their only correspondence was through these ten letters; and that further lends them this aura of historical fascination. To think that these words might never have been published, were never meant to be published, really makes me thank the stars that they were. What a loss it might have been. See for yourself –

If you trust in Nature, in what is simple in Nature, in the small Things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling, not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge. 
.
You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
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If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiment, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing.

Remember, it’s German. It is German that has been translated into English here. So it has long winding sentences, endless blocks of writing and a very strange formal Queen-sey tone. But if you let that slide, and turn down the scoff, there is a lot to learn from this man. Some of it will be things you already know; but at least for me, having someone tell me things I thought I knew but never could put into words is one of the great magics of reading. Letters to a Young Poet, the Stephen Mitchell translation, widely considered the best, is available to read online for free (not sure how trusted this site is.) Click away, you can read any or all of the letters on the site; though I have to say, the physical book is worth the buy. 

Peeling the Onion by Günter Grass

(I had to finish this in November, for German Literature Month, but it spilled into December.)

The first book I finished this weekend was a beautiful autobiography of German Nobel-Prize-winning author Günter Grass. The title, Peeling the Onion, is a running metaphor for peeling back the layers of memory, gradually, carefully, taking care not to cut too deep too soon and unleash withheld tears. It is popularly considered a confessional account of Grass’s entry into the Waffen-SS, the Nazi military wing. It follows him through his days as an ex-Nazi prisoner of war and the later years as a sculptor and an artist, and how these life experiences influenced his writing and peace-time politics. 
To start with, let me just say I have read nothing by Grass and not a lot about him. And yet, I knew this – he was the voice of post-war Germany, their self-appointed moral compass, and the man who said, “it is a citizen’s first duty to not keep quiet.” And yet it took Grass so many years to break his silence. This book caused quite a stir when it was published, precisely because of the irony of its revelation; the fact that Germany’s so-called conscience-figure had been a willing believer in the Third Reich. This was why I was looking forward to reading the book. I wanted to read the ‘confession of guilt’, make sense of it, the scandal it caused; it could be a non-fictional version of Miller’s The Crucible, and with this expectation, I was setting myself up for disappointment.
I went in expecting a very different book. Peeling the Onion is not Grass’s daring confession about his part in the Waffen-SS. Guilt is a major theme in the book, and war played a major role in his life – but not in the way you’d expect or want it to be. The controversy, in hindsight, makes as little sense as accusing To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee of racist talk or trying to ban Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

The controversy takes a cursory glance at the book and misses the subtext. Grass was not a hypocrite, for the man demanding and expecting honesty from fellow men did not carry himself on a high horse. This book shows, in fact, that he was rather a man who had spent the better part of his life struggling with remorse for not having done just that – for not having had the courage to speak up. For not asking, “Why?” The narrator of a book is ideally a sympathetic character. This, Grass is not. Yet, it is perfectly possible to look past that for the book has a lot to offer. 

“When shortly after my eleventh birthday synagogues in Danzig and elsewhere were set aflame and Jewish merchants’ shop windows shattered, I took no part, yet I was very much a curious spectator. I simply stood by and observed, and was, at most, surprised.

No matter how zealously I rummage through the foliage of my memory, I can find nothing in my favour. My childhood years seem to have been completely untroubled by doubt. No, I was a pushover, always game for everything that the times, which called themselves – exhilaratedly and exhilaratingly – modern, had to offer.”

Grass is unerringly honest. And this honesty is disconcerting to read, as in the chapter ‘His name was WEDONTDOTHAT’. Grass tells us about a spirited blue-eyed blonde boy, a fellow soldier in the Luftwaffe, who would pointedly refuse to hold any weapon because it was un-German. “We don’t do that,” he would say, no matter how and how often he was punished for it, and “Wedontdothat” became his name; Grass talks about how relieved they were when, one day, he disappeared from te camp and with him, the pricking doubt he put in the rest of their minds finally vanished. Grass didn’t care where he had gone, though they all knew. It was difficult to take Grass’s brusque honesty in a stride at such times. I had to take periodic breaks from the book as it was too emotionally charged to read at one go. 
Of course, the infamous Waffen-SS is only a minor feature in the 500-page book. One-fourth of it, perhaps. A large quarter of the book is about hunger, and how Grass spent most of his life satisfying one hunger after the other, hunger of the stomach during war-time, of the flesh as a youth and of the mind. How hunger frequently dictated the course his life would take. Grass details his experience as a prisoner of war at the age of eighteen. Injured, in mind and body, yet never having shot a bullet himself. Tells us how it was to meet Jews for the first time since the war, how it was to learn about the horrors of the concentration camp and how the ex-soldiers would refuse to believe that it existed. He talks about listening to late night arguments on politics and coming to terms with his ignorance and indifference. He details later learning what happened to his family “when the Russians came.” How the war changed his mother, who never told him what really went on when Danzig, the hometown, was raided. How it broke his sister’s spirit. It is a cinema-reel of atrocities and the clear sun-lit reality of it all makes it so difficult to tell black from white. The supposed controversy of Grass’s revelation has long ceased to matter at this point.
Günter Grass was a sculptor. This, I did not know at all. He had been an art enthusiast as a child and artist was one of the things he wanted to grow up to be. A waning half of the book is about his career as a sculptor, the women in his life during this time. Amidst all the women (and his children) in his life, this book details only one of his marriages, to Anna Schwarz, the dancer. His second wife Ute makes guest appearances in his travels.

The various characters of his numerous books start taking shape now, inspiration flowing in from his war memories, and we finally begin to learn a little something about Günter Grass, the writer. He used to stand when he wrote! What a weirdly inconsequential thing to discover, yet it has stuck, maybe because it is so random – it was a habit he picked up as a sculptor, he wrote at his stand-up desk. He was left-handed, and talks as though he is constantly aware of his left-handedness; and of course he is, so am I. (Aren’t right-handers constantly aware of their right-handedness? Must be, because so many show surprise when I casually raise my left hand to do something.) He also dwells on his transformation from a total non-smoker who’d use cigarettes as a favourite barter in his prison days to the young artist who smoked for careful pretense until it became an incorrigible habit. 

Often he drifts into the third person talking not of himself but a boy and I cannot help but wonder, is he making it impersonal for our sake or his own? But, of course, he has already told me that. I should know by now… nothing escapes him, least of all his own failings. The very first sentence of the book reads – “Today, as in years past, the temptation to camouflage oneself in the third person remains great.”  
It cannot be easy to fashion a tangible narrative out of wisps of memory. Moreover, to convert ones past into something of interest to another. The writing does not possess an inch of self-importance or flattery, nor does he ever put on an air of fake modesty. Quite possibly because it took me so long to read it, but also because of how far and deep it extended, I neared the end of the book with the conclusive impression that I had experienced a lifetime – a long, long trek, and I was the mental equivalent of out-of-breath.

Ich nannte ihn Krawatte by Milena Michiko Flašar

Ever since I joined that Goethe Institut online library, my English reads have considerably piled up. But like any freshly joined library, it is just too addictive. Ich nannte ihn Krawatte was the first book I randomly selected and it was the start of my non-stop German reading. I hope this has a translation, because you have to read it!
The most fascinating thing about this book is that the author is Austrian with Japanese roots. Ich nannte ihn Krawatte is set in Japan and describes some really intriguing aspects of Japanese society. It’s like reading Ishiguro: it has that wistful Japanese tone of writing, without the disconnected, pieced together feel of a translation. The only difference is that this particular original is in German.
Summary: A hikikomori is a young person who has distanced himself from society and reduced contact with family to a minimum; a recluse. The word literally means pulling inward.
In “Ich nannte ihn Krawatte” by Milena Michiko Flašar, our narrator is a hikikomori. The story he tells us is of a friendship that helped bring him out of isolation. He has a lot to say about his unlikely friend, as he waits for him in a Tokyo park: “Ich nannte ihn Krawatte” that is, “I called him Tie”. Tetsu is much older than the narrator, a typical salaryman in a suit and tie, who spent his afternoons, like the narrator, on a park bench. What separated the two from the normal park visitors was their obvious boredom with life. A tentative chat developed into a friendship, and our narrator finds himself freely speaking his mind, after years of silence. Through their conversations we discover that their lives are grayer than they appear.
The book does not have a linear plot. It has a string of one- or two-page musings for chapters, and the author has left it up to us to add the connectors. The author has a way with creating characters that makes the chaotic plot cease to matter. There is a realistic contrast between the voices of the younger and the older man. There are two characters, whom you get to hear about through the thoughts of the two men, only to meet them later on in the book and discover that they are flesh-and-blood as the two friends.
The book made me think about people, dealing with loss and how everyone has problems and you never know what those around you are thinking, and you might have it better and easier than them. It is about feeling alone and incomplete in a crowd and wanting people to want you; only to realize that you can only be part of a crowd by inviting them in. It’s about the small and big lessons you learn in life, the people who teach you them and how every little action matters. It’s about loving someone and not knowing that they love you back. About being afraid and being afraid to admit that you’re afraid. The narrator also talks about regrets, about things you should have done, things you wanted to do, but never could and how they have a much lasting effect than all the things you regret doing. The most important details are those that are left out of the story. After all those ruminations, it’s at once nice and heart breaking when he seems to understand that it is wholly up to him to restart his life.
There was only thing, according to me, that the story could have done without – the abruptly racing plot in the very last pages, and the meticulous tying up of loose ends. That being said, the book is not too stretched out, only a couple of hundred pages make a nice read.

Unter den Linden and Kassandra by Christa Wolf

I’m not sure if an English translation of Unter den Linden is available, do let me know if you find one. Kassandra, on the other hand is definitely available in English, translated by Jan Van Heurck. Christa Wolf is pretty much among the most famous German authors and I am glad I read her works. I found Unter den Linden pleasantly contemplative and Kassandra was quite a read. What engaged me above all was reading up on the author’s life. So, once done with these two, I was keen on acquiring her autobiographical novel: Stadt der Engel or The Overcoat of Dr. Freud; until I remembered the other German female authors I had waiting on my shelf. I’d still like to read Stadt der Engel, but maybe not right away!
Unter den Linden: There are three stories in this collection, but the title story alone is enough to completely enrapture the reader. Unter den Linden has an intriguing narrative structure. It is set in a dream and the line between fiction and reality is blurred. It is a Bildungsroman of sorts. The narrator walks through her past, in an effort to help us understand her, and in the process, ends up with more than she has bargained for. In her dream, she follows a young blonde woman, who acts as her counterpart, and comes across people from her life, a professor she seduced, a friend who died, and so on. As she dissects their actions, their faults and mistakes, she unwittingly uncovers something about herself. The prose is meandering, our narrator tends to go off on tangents and she spends much of the book musing over life. The most obvious theme of the book is self realization, and a few others could be betrayal or digging up and facing our bitterest secrets. The writing is so layered, that the deeper you dig, the more you are bound to find – I have to admit, I’ll have to re-read it, more than once, to fully comprehend its message.
Kassandra: Ever since back when History Channel aired a TV movie on Helen of Troy, which my sister made me watch, I have been fascinated by this and it is one of the rare parts of mythology I’m relatively well versed in (I’m unusually bad with names.) Kassandra by Christa Wolf is a compelling retelling of the Trojan War, with the focus on Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. According to what I knew, she was a seer, who was cursed by Apollo, so that none of her predictions would ever be believed. She was widely held in contempt for her prophecies and was ridiculed on her suggestion that the Trojan horse could be a ploy by the Greek. The story is narrated by Cassandra, who after being sent off with Agamemnon following the war, is now held in captivity and awaits her death. She reveals in the book the maddening secret that lead to the fall of Troy. It is true that the story is based in history and mythology, but you don’t have to read up on the Trojan war to follow it; just a little background info works; the story is mostly freestanding.

The only other proper retelling of a myth I have read is Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis and these two have one thing in common: the voice of a woman. But that’s as far as the similarities go. Kassandra is about oppression, and Christa seems to have drawn heavily from her own experiences. The book was written in 1984, and when set in historical context, it is easy to relate the writer’s own experience of the futile and essentially patriarchal nature of war with Cassandra’s guilt about the part she played, if in spite of herself, in Troy’s self-destruction. Kassandra is the kind of book that is written solely to make a point. While I appreciate the allegory, the story is often weighed down by gross exaggerations and one dimensional characters; there’s a lot to learn, or be fascinated by even; I’m probably going to spend a long time looking things up, picking out allusions and trying to draw parallels. But the book offers little entertainment. That and the fact that the winding prose that I adored in Unter den Linden seems a bit confusing and twisted in Kassandra were the two minor irritations I had with the book. Other than that, Kassandra is a must read. I wanted to read the book in English, and I probably will, if only to reconfirm what I’ve understood!

If not anything else, these books were a fabulous kick-start to the German Literature Month 2013, hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy over at Lizzy’s Literary Life. The book I plan to read next is lighter content-wise, but also a thriller: Erebos by Ursula Poznanski. I have a few other reads lined up, but I’m not planning so far ahead!

(Excuse the typos, if any; I have struggled through two German books in just one day, which is far more than I am used to, having stubbornly refused the luxury of a dictionary. I’m now exhausted and in no mood to re-read and edit this post!) 

Drachenreiter von Cornelia Funke

Ich habe schon auf diesem Blog gesagt, dass ich Deutsch als Fremdsprache lerne. Ich habe Rezensionen von deutschen Büchern geschrieben, aber niemals auf Deutsch. Zum ersten Mal versuche ich heute, auf Deutsch zu schreiben. Der Grund dafür: Language Freak Summer Challenge! Ich weiß, ich neige dazu, lange Sätze zu bilden und kann nur hoffen, dass ich dabei keine Fehler mache.

Als ich die Tintenwelt-Trilogie gelesen habe, war ich von Funkes Schreibstil total begeistert. Damals las ich aber wenig Deutsch. Die war die erste deutsche Buchreihe, die ich gelesen und noch wichtiger, verstanden habe. Drachenreiter war zwar auch eine fantasievolle Geschichte, aber das Buch war mir manchmal ein bisschen langweilig. Es war viel größer als ich erwartet habe. Ich habe es mir nicht vorgestellt, dass ich einen ganzen Monat bräuchte, das Buch zu Ende zu lesen. Die Handlung ist trotzdem schnell in Fahrt gekommen, was ich toll gefunden habe.

Hier ist die Zusammenfassung aus Amazon: Eine abenteuerliche Reise liegt vor Lung, dem silbernen
Drachen, und seinen Begleitern, dem Koboldmädchen Schwefelfell und dem
Waisenjungen Ben. Sie sind auf der Suche nach einem sicheren Ort für Lungs
Artgenossen, für die es in der Menschenwelt keinen Platz mehr zu geben scheint.
Lung setzt seine ganze Hoffnung auf den sagenumwobenen “Saum des
Himmels”. Dort, irgendwo zwischen den Gipfeln des Himalaya versteckt, soll
die ursprüngliche Heimat der Drachen liegen. Noch ahnen die drei jedoch nicht,
dass es etwas viel Bedrohlicheres als die Menschen gibt – Nesselbrand den
Goldenen, das gefährlichste Drachen jagende Ungeheuer, das die Welt je gesehen
hat. Und er ist ihnen auch schon auf der Spur …

Schwefelfell war sehr niedlich und Lung gefiel mir auch. Da es ein Kinderbuch war, war es ganz spannend. Es gab eine Menge von Details über die vielen seltsamen Fabelwesen. Zusammen mit dem Abenteuer, erzählte das Buch von der ungewöhnlichen Freundschaft zwischen Schwefelfell, Lung und Ben. Die Autorin schrieb auch vieles über den Menschen und versuchte, mit einer Moral zu enden. Es hätte aber mehr über die Gefühle und Gedanken von den Drachen, Zwergen und anderen Wesen sein können, um die Geschichte interessanter zu machen. Die Charaktere waren einfach zu flach. Und ich stimme dazu gar nicht zu, dass Kinder Geschichten mit eindimensionalen Charakteren besser finden. (Habt ihr nicht Harry Potter gelesen? Hauselfen sind doch Menschen.)

Wenn ihr normalerweise Fantasy nicht lest, ist Drachenreiter perfekt für euch! Ich glaube, dieses Buch eignet sich am besten für Sprachlerner, weil es sich leicht und flüssig liest.

~
Okay, I think, that’s enough German for this blog. If you want German book recommendations, check out this site. I’m also halfway done with Hiob (Job) by Joseph Roth (who, by the way, is one of my favourite German language writers – he’s Austrian.) It’s a really good book, though I’m certain it’s going to be November, by the time I finish it.
Anyway: Spot any mistakes? Let me know.

Viel Spaß beim Lesen!

Language Freak Summer Challenge

The Language Freak Summer Challenge is hosted here. It ends at the end of August, so I’m joining in somewhat late.
The goal is to read books in any foreign language you know, and review them in that language. A little bit about the languages I do speak: My mother tongue is Marathi, which is an Indian language. I also speak Hindi and of course, most books I read are in English. Neither of these counts as a ‘foreign language’. That language, for me, would be German; I’ve been learning it for four years, give or take. I have reviewed many German books on this blog, some of which I actually read in German too. But I’ve never really written a review in German, so this seems like a good chance to try that!
Of course,  I can’t wait to read what other German reviewers write, either. The German books that I have lined up to read include one by Cornelia Funke and another by Joseph Roth. If you’re a foreign language learner, make sure to check out this challenge!

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse – German Literature Month 2012

Wisdom is not communicable. The wisdom which a wise man
tries to communicate always sounds foolish… Knowledge can be communicated but
not wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through
it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.

I was under the misconception, that this book was actually about Buddha. Which is one of the reasons why I was expecting something entirely different. For people like me, who have no idea what the book is about, here’s a summary, taken from Goodreads.
In the novel, Siddhartha, a young man, leaves
his family for a contemplative life, then, restless, discards it for one of the
flesh. He conceives a son, but bored and sickened by lust and greed, moves on
again. Near despair, Siddhartha comes to a river where he hears a unique sound.
This sound signals the true beginning of his life – the beginning of
suffering, rejection, peace, and, finally, wisdom.
While the Siddhartha of this book is not actually the Siddhartha (Gautam / Gotama Buddha), the book is set in his times and he does cross paths with him. The book does incorporate Buddha’s four noble truths and the eight-fold plan, not to mention, the book is divided into parts according to the stages of Hindu life. It’s a spiritual journey and unlike any of the corny stuff that those words bring to mind. Like I said, the book surprised me, albeit pleasantly.

However, I don’t see myself re-reading the book, I’m unsure whether I’ll like it the second time around, with the element of surprise no longer present. It’s short and very moving, but neither of these things suits a re-read. According to me, this book is an amazing one-time-only read, but maybe that’s just me.

It was a bit difficult for me to get through the German, perhaps the language is a bit stilted (is it?) Some of it just seemed wrong to me and since I don’t think it’s wise to trust myself on that, I don’t know why language was difficult. It helped that it is such a small book. I found my copy at a book sale and it’s old and has yellowed pages and these little insightful notes in the margins (I don’t really like writing in books, though) and it smells great!

German Literature Month 2012 is hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life.

Reading Heinrich Böll

During the German Literature Month – November 2011, I received two books by the Nobel Prize in Literature winning author, Heinrich Böll as part of a giveaway (big thanks to Caroline @ Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy @ Lizzy’s Literary Life) – his first ever novel, The Train Was on Time and another renowned one, The Clown. A week before I wouldn’t have been able to name my favourite German writer. Now, these two hauntingly beautiful novels seem to have changed that.
  • The Train Was on Time by Heinrich Böll
About the book: Published in 1949, The Train Was on Time (original: Der Zug war puenktlich) is Heinrich Böll’s first novel.
“That’s something no one would ever be able to understand, why I don’t take the next train back to her… why don’t I? No one would ever be able to understand that. But I’m scared of that innocence… and I love her very much, and I’m going to die, and all she’ll ever get from me now will be an official letter saying: Fallen for Greater Germany…”
Summary: The novel is the story of a soldier, Andreas, who is stationed on the Eastern Front. Hitler has already lost the war; and as the troop train leaves Germany and slowly enters Poland, Andreas is sure of his eventual death. The story is about Andreas’s last train journey, the fellow soldiers and their experiences.
My thoughts: I found this to be a beautiful novel, like I said, hauntingly beautiful. The emotions portrayed in this novel are painful but real. A blurb on the back cover says that “Böll has feelingly symbolized a guilty Germany doing penance for its sins through suffering and death.” I couldn’t have said it better.
_______________________________________________________________
  • The Clown by Heinrich Böll
About the book: Published in 1963, The Clown (original: Ansichten eines Clowns i.e. Opinions of a Clown) is an acclaimed work (an instant bestseller of its time) and a German classic by Heinrich Böll.
“I don’t trust Catholics,” I said, “because they take advantage of you.”
“And Protestants?” he asked with a laugh.
“I loathe the way they fumble around with their consciences.”
“And atheists?” He was still laughing.
“They bore me because all they ever talk about is God.”
Summary: Hans Schnier is a famous clown; a clown whose ‘wife’ seems to have left him because he won’t marry her within the Catholic church. This searing loss has affected the man and the clown in him, and now alone at home, Schnier launches into a long, mordant monologue – that is this book.
(when Schnier’s sister, Henrietta, dies at war.)
For the first time I sensed how terrible are the objects left behind when someone goes away or dies. Mother actually made an effort to eat, no doubt it was supposed to mean: Life goes on or something of that sort, but I knew very well: that wasn’t so, it isn’t life that goes on but death.
My thoughts: The Clown is one of the most amazing books I’ve read, and definitely my favourite this year. The novel is written in a style that along with being deeply painful, is strikingly intelligent and humorous. The inability of the young man to fit in with his own society, an outcast and the helplessness of a nonbeliever in love with a devout, of a child who has lost his sister to the war, are the themes dealt with in the novel. About post-war Germany, it seems that the author has a lot to say – country struggling to find a new identity, Nazi-guilt, religion and post-War German consciousness.
(about the seeming lack of guilt in the society, the pretentiouness that Schnier hates.)
What upset me was the innocence of the returned emigrants. They were so moved by all the remorse and loud protestations of democracy that they were forever embracing and radiating good fellow-ship. They failed to grasp that the secret of the terror lay in the little things. To regret the big things is child’s play: political errors, adultery, murder, anti-Semitism – but who forgives, who understands, the little things? The way Herbert Kalick grabbed Götz Buchel by the collar, stood him in front of the class, although the teacher protested mildly, and said: “Look at him – if that isn’t a Jew!”
I remember too many moments, too many details, tiny little things.
I have heard people mention that the scope of the book is too narrow, the intended audience and the people who can relate to it. But doesn’t everyone have something they are/should be guilty about, every person and every country? Someone they have lost and the whole question of religion. I think, when put in to the right context, the book can be about any society, about any of us. It’s a must read and kind of a collector’s piece! I see myself re-reading this book many times!

German Literature Month 2011 – Wrap Up

German Literature Month – November 2011 (hosted by Caroline @ Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy @ Lizzy’s Literary Life) ended yesterday. I haven’t been much active lately, because I have been quite busy reading Stephen King’s amazing new book – 11.22.63 along with the two great books I received during GLM itself, i.e, Heinrich Böll’s Clown and The Train Was On Time.

Books I read: (I haven’t managed to review all the books I read – owing to the very busy last week. I have linked to the reviews I did manage to write, and I will review the rest in the coming week.)

2. The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
I guess seven books in the month is a lot more than I thought I would read. I do look forward to reading more German literature!!

Hotel Savoy – Joseph Roth (Week III)

It is Week III of the German Literature Month (hosted by Caroline @ Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy @ Lizzy’s Literary Life.) I read Hotel Savoy in less than a couple of days – and since I read it in German, that is quite an achievement for me. The book is only a little more than a hundred pages, though. It is a quick and quite pleasant read.

(I didn’t manage to find any quote from this book in English – so I translated this on my own; unfortunately putting both the quality and the authenticity at risk.)
“I am a cold person. During the war, I never felt one with the company. We were all lying in the same dirt and waiting for the same death. But all I could think of was my own life and my own death. I walked over dead bodies, and sometimes, it hurt me that I felt no pain.”

About the book: Hotel Savoy is a novel written by Austrian writer Joseph Roth. It was first published in 1924.
Summary: Gabriel Dan is a “Heimkehrer”, an Austrian soldier and later, POW returning home from a Siberian prison camp. He stays temporarily at a certain Hotel Savoy in an unnamed city in Europe. Situated somewhere between Russia and Europe, Hotel Savoy regularly provides shelter to the refugees of the Great War, both the rich and the poor. Encountering a variety of people, including his presumably rich uncle, an exotic dancer and a rather old and intimidating lift-“boy” – it is in Hotel Savoy that Gabriel Dan, the cold ex-soldier, finally finds his home.
My thoughts: I loved this book for making me realize how unimportant a story line can be, in a well written book. The book has no plot; it is only a series of events stringed wonderfully together. The descriptions are beautiful and vivid. The language is simple, but the ideas are powerful.
The hotel is like a small world on it’s own – a microcosm – representative of the entire post-war Europe. The characters, all very realistic, come from all sections of society, and the main theme of the novel is the effect of the war on the people. You can see that Europe will never the be same again. And then there is that tinge of humour and parody that prevents this short book from becoming dull.
The book is unlike anything I have read before. It’s a must read!