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.

The Royal Game by Stefan Zweig – German Literature Month 2012

This is my slightly late post about The Royal Game / Schachnovelle by Stefan Zweig that I read for the first week of the German Literature Month 2012.

About the book (from here)Chess Story, also known as The Royal Game,
is the Austrian master Stefan Zweig’s final achievement, completed in Brazilian
exile and sent off to his American publisher only days before his suicide in
1942. It is the only story in which Zweig looks at Nazism, and he does so with
characteristic emphasis on the psychological.

On the ship from New York to Buenos Aires, our narrator spots Mirko Czentovic, the world chess champion. Czentovic started out as a poor boy and is still illiterate. He prefers to keep to himself and never having learnt about any other greatness than his own, he is arrogant. When a few passengers, along with the narrator, approach him to play a game of chess with them, he agrees to play for a price. They come together to try their skills against him and are soundly defeated. Then a mysterious passenger, Dr. B, steps forward to advise them and their fortunes change. The passengers try to persuade Dr. B to play with Czentovic one on one, but he promptly refuses. When the narrator asks Dr. B, how he became such a skilled chess player, Dr. B narrates his story.

As a monarchist hiding valuable assets of the nobility, Dr. B had been tortured by the Nazis, who kept him in total isolation. He had come across a book of chess games, which he had then read and memorized; it had been his only way to keep himself from going insane. After memorizing and absorbing every move mentioned in the game and being left with nothing to do, Dr. B had begun to play against himself, splitting himself into the two players: White and Black. He had reached an emotional breakdown because of the psychological conflict, and had only returned back to his sanity, after being rescued. Chess is more a game of the mind than anything else and the crux of the story lies in the final game between Mirko Czentovic and Dr. B., a showdown between an illiterate stoic and a learned neurotic.

The way the book deals with its themes of torture, incarceration, defeat, war, politics and in extreme detail Nazism is at once horrific, depressing and amazingly true to life. The way Zweig writes about what goes on in someone’s head, the way he can translate the hopelessness and helplessness into words is fabulous. I like Zweig’s austere writing style and the pace of the book. It’s a short but impactful novella, and one that I think everyone ought to read.

(The picture is a woodcut by Elke Rehder, a German artist who has done a series of artworks on Stefan Zweig’s Schachnovelle.)

Two Poems based in Folklore – German Literature Month 2012

The German Literature Month 2012 is hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life. The first week is for novellas, plays and poems. I read two books of poems, one by Goethe and another by Heinrich Heine. This post is about two fascinating poems, which are based, to an extent, on folklore.
The first is a poem called Der Erlkoenig or The Elfking / Alder King / Erlking by Goethe. You can read it here, along with the literal translation and English adaptation. The poem is best of course, in its original language, but here is another loose adaptation of the poem in English by Sir Walter Scott. There are actually many translations of the poem, my personal favourite would be the one by Edgar Bowring, mostly because the archaic language maintains the quaintness of the ballad.

rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The father it is, with his infant so dear;
He holdeth the boy tightly clasped in his arm,
He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.

son, wherefore seek’st thou thy face thus to hide?”
“Look, father, the Erl-King is close by our side!
Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?”
“My son, ‘tis the mist rising over the plain.”

come, thou dear infant! Oh, come, thou with me!
Full many a game I will play there with thee;
On my strand, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold,
My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold.”

father, my father, and dost thou not hear
The words that the Erl-King now breathes in mine ear?”
“Be calm, dearest child, ‘tis thy fancy deceives;
‘Tis the sad wind that sighs through the withering leaves.”

go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there?
My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care;
My daughters by night their glad festival keep,
They’ll dance thee, and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep.”

father, my father, and dost thou not see,
How the Erl-King his daughters has brought here for me?”
“My darling, my darling, I see it aright,
‘Tis the aged gray willows deceiving thy sight.”

love thee, I’m charmed by they beauty, dear boy!
And if thou’rt unwilling, then force I’ll employ.”
“My father, my father, he seizes me fast,
Full sorely the Erl-King has hurt me at last.”

father now gallops, with terror half wild,
He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child:
He reaches his courtyard with toil and with dread,
The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead.

I love the poem, it is dark and dreary, just the way I like. I realized there were many interpretations of this poem, after reading some myself, like the Erl-King being seduction or all things forbidden. I like it more when the supernatural is actually there, even if as a horrific figment of our imagination, rather than a symbol. The most literal meaning is that there actually is an Erl-King, who after failing to take the child with him, kills him in anger.
To me, though, they don’t seem like just another father and child. It’s late and it’s a dark and dreary night; to me it seems like there is a reason that they are travelling in right then; a reason that the father is holding his child so close and tight. The child is already sick and hallucinating. What I thought is that the Erl-King is something that the child believes has come to take him, when he is on the verge of dying, a Grim Reaper, if you may. As the child loses his touch with reality, he feels that something is beckoning him to join it and after the child protests, forcing him. The child doesn’t want to go, as he is scared, but death or the Erl-King takes him away, anyway.

I doubt that the father ever believes in the Erl-King, even as he runs away. It is just the most obvious thing to do: he is on his horse, it is dark and no one is around and as the child’s desperation increases, the father knows something is wrong and gallops off, terrified, to where he was originally headed: to get help. It could also be said that the father prefers to believe in the fantastic tale of an Erl-King taking his child away, so as to put the blame for the child’s death on something other than the fact that the father himself was late in getting help. 

I love the setting: the wisps of cloud in the sky, the sound of wind rustling through the leaves, the shadows of huge, still trees; they all do seem like evil spirits. Creating a fear of the unknown or unseen may be the most used technique in horror, gothic fiction, but it works for me every time. I really liked this ballad.
Would your interpretation of the text be as literal as mine?


The second poem is Die Lore-ley or The Lorelei by Heinrich Heine. You can read the original poem here.
I first read it in English, a few years ago, in Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad. When I read the original poem in Gedichte, a book of poems by Heinrich Heine, I remembered why I was so fascinated by the story and the legend back then. Also, the imagery in the original poem is masterful and I could imagine every single detail of the scene from the way it is written. 
Here’s the version Mark Twain mentioned in the book. He had probably translated it himself, but I’m not entirely sure about that:

I cannot divine what it meaneth,
This haunting nameless pain: 
A tale of the bygone ages 
Keeps brooding through my brain:

The faint air cools in the glooming,
And peaceful flows the Rhine, 
The thirsty summits are drinking 
The sunset’s flooding wine;

The loveliest maiden is sitting 
High-throned in yon blue

Her golden jewels are shining, 
She combs her golden hair;

She combs with a comb that is golden, 
And sings a weird refrain 
That steeps in a deadly enchantment 
The list’ner’s ravished brain:

The doomed in his drifting shallop, 
Is tranced with the sad sweet tone, 
He sees not the yawning breakers,
He sees but the maid alone:

The pitiless billows engulf him!–
So perish sailor and bark;
And this, with her baleful singing, 
Is the Lorelei’s gruesome work.

The Loreley is a rock on the coast of the river Rhein, which forms a blind turn on the narrowest part of the river. Many sailors have crashed onto the rock and died. The heavy currents near the rock create a murmuring sound, which has inspired many legends and folklore. The mythical tale of the musical nymph Echo inspired a ballad, where a beautiful girl named Loreley, who has been betrayed by her lover, jumps down to her death, from the rock on the Rhein. The echo of her name haunts the rock and kills any man who approaches it.

Heinrich Heine’s poem on the other hand, looks at Loreley as a siren instead of a nymph. Sirens are devious, seemingly beautiful creatures who lure sailors to their doom with their charming voices. The poem could be interpreted thus as a tale of a frightening monster that wants to kill the sailors. It can also be seen as  a tragic romantic story, which is how I first interpreted it. The singer, Loreley, might as well be blissfully oblivious to the gruesome ending, which her music has brought the men to. 

I like the use of sounds in the poem and the small word-plays, which I couldn’t really describe because the poem I’ve given here isn’t the original. That makes me wonder if it is worth reading translated poems, with everything that may have been lost in the process. A single changed syllable changes the sound, and hence the rhythm, and it could change the meaning of the poem or affect the way a poem is interpreted. Not to mention there are word plays, allusions and puns that can’t quite be translated word for word. What do you think?
Another poem by Goethe that I read and loved was Heidenroeslein. The book of Heinrich Heine’s poems was a precious little collection and I enjoyed all the poems I read. Which are your favourite German poems?

German Literature Month 2012

German Literature Month!! I can’t believe I forgot about this. This is a one-month event (naturally) hosted by  Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life. Last year I had a blast participating in the event and discovered some great authors like Heinrich Boell, Ferdinand von Schirach, Joseph Roth.

This is the schedule for the event this year:

Week 1: Novellas, plays and poems
Week 2: Literary novels
Week 3: Genre fiction: crime, fantasy, horror, romance
Week 4: Read as you please

Here are the books that I want to read (I might, of course, change the list entirely as I go; I’m unpredictable that way.)

Week 1: I have a few books piled up from last year, that I didn’t get around to reading, which include a couple of novellas. The one I’m sure about reading this week is Schachnovelle / The Royal Game by Stefan Zweig.
I have a book of poems by Heinrich Heine that sounds surprisingly nice and I want to try a couple of poems by Goethe that I’ve heard/read about.
I also have a book, a play called Des Teufels General / The Devil’s General by Carl Zuckmayer. All I know is that it’s about the war, and if I find time, I would like to read it as well.

Week 2: Last month, at a book sale, I found a precious little copy of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. I have always wanted to read that book and there couldn’t be a better time. Some books I want to try include those by authors Bernhard Schlink, Thomas Mann, Hans Fallada, Franz Werfel among others, but I have absolutely no idea, which of these books I’m actually going to find.
From last year’s stock I have Das Boot / The Boat by Lothar- Günther Buchheim. I saw the movie a long time ago and I’m hoping a little idea of what happens might help me understand that huge novel in its original German.

Week 3: German genre fiction is a complete blank for me and I’ll need to do some research when the time comes. Right now, the only names that come to mind are Ingrid Noll for thriller and E. T. A. Hoffmann for fantasy/supernatural fiction.

It’s been far too long since I have a read a German book and I can’t wait to get started! What are you reading?