Uwe Tellkamp: Der Eisvogel [The Kingfisher]

The latest addition to my website is Uwe Tellkamp‘s Der Eisvogel [The Kingfisher]. Wiggo Ritter is a lost soul. His father is a ruthless banker and Wiggo hates everything he stands for. He studies philosophy, to his father’s disgust, but gets into a dispute with his professor and loses his job. He then meets Mauritz and Manuela Kaltmeister. They belong to a group called Rebirth, a right-wing group, which believes the elite should rule. Mauritz is pushing for terrorist activities to scare the populace into wanting a law-and-order group like his to take over and where better to start than with the professor who fired Wiggo? We know it goes wrong, as the book opens with Wiggo shooting and killing Mauritz and he ending up in hospital with severe burns. This is a fine book, only translated into Polish, about urban terrorism and a lost soul not finding his way.

Olga Grjasnowa: Gott ist nicht schüchtern (City of Jasmine)

The latest addition to my website is Olga Grjasnowa‘s Gott ist nicht schüchtern (City of Jasmine). Grjasnowa is an Azerbaijan-born German national, married to a Syrian. This novel primarily takes place during the recent Syrian Civil War. We follow the fate of three Syrians caught up in it. Hammoudi has studied medicine in Paris and briefly returned to Syria to visit his family and renew his passport. However, though his passport is renewed, he is not allowed to leave the country. Amal is the daughter of a rich man, who is studying drama. She is also demonstrating against the repression by the Assad Regime. She meets Youssef, a young director. Amal and Youssef both get arrested and later leave the country, though their troubles are far from over. Hammoudi works as a doctor in his home town of Deir ez-Zor, while under heavy attack from both the Syrian army and Isis, before escaping to Turkey and also having further problems as a refugee. It is a thoroughly grim novel but interesting to see the crisis from the perspective of the ordinary Syrian trying to survive.

Uwe Tellkamp: Der Turm (The Tower)

The latest addition to my website is Uwe Tellkamp‘s Der Turm (The Tower). This is a monumental novel – around a thousand pages long – which follows the lives of an extended, middle class family in the German Democratic Republic, ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Tellkamp’s aim is clear – to utterly condemn the GDR and its ways. The various family members, none of whom is a saint, have their own family and personal problems but, above all, they face innumerable problems by virtue of the fact that they live in the GDR. These problems include shortages, being spied on, extensive censorship, getting into trouble for even the mildest criticism of the system, housing problems, massive corruption, frequent power outages and many more. Tellkamp illustrates all of these problems and many more through his characters, as they struggle to cope and to survive. We follow three main characters – Richard, an outspoken surgeon, his son, Christian, far less outspoken than his father but who nevertheless gets into trouble for it, and Meno, Richard’s brother-in-law, a publisher’s editor who faces daily censorship. Tellkamp very much makes his point but it is a lot of reading on a subject that is soon likely to fade from memory.

Aftermath

I recently attended an exhibition at Tate Britain called Aftermath, exploring the impact of World War One on British, German and French art. I have long been fascinated by this period for two reasons.

Knights: Marriage at Cana

Firstly I have long enjoyed the British artists of that period (and up to and including World War II). These include artists, who were in this exhibition, such as Edward Burra, Winifred Knights (whose The Marriage at Cana I was able to see both in Auckland (where it normally lives) and at the Dulwich Picture Gallery), John Nash, his brother Paul Nash, C R W Nevinson, William Roberts and Stanley Spencer. Many of these artists have had something of a rediscovery in the UK in recent years, with exhibitions devoted to them.

The exhibition did, of course, include some interesting French artists, such as Picasso, André Derain, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger and André Masson and German artists such as Max Ernst, Otto Dix and Georg Grosz.

My grandmother who died in the Spanish flu epidemic, with my uncles

My other interest in this period is because World War I changed so much. There were the obvious changes such as the fact that 10 million died and 20 million were injured, large parts of France and Belgium were destroyed, the economies of many European countries were destroyed, it led directly to the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism, various revolutions/civil wars happened (Russia, Ireland, Malta, Hungary, Germany, Egypt, Finland and others) and various countries died/significantly changed their frontiers and/or came into being after the war. Less obvious but still fairly well-known were the Spanish flu epidemic immediately after the war, which took millions of lives, the fact that after the War, the US surpassed Britain and Germany in economic and political power and the fact that after the War, Britain (and other countries, too) moved from being primarily a rural country to being primarily an urban country. In the UK, we have recently celebrated one hundred years of votes for women though, as many pointed out, it was at the same time that all adult men also received the vote. There is no question that the role of women changed after the war, not least because women had to work at men when the men were away fighting and dying.

Many novels and poems were written (and are still being written) about World War I, probably as many if not more than those set in World War II and the American Civil War. I have a long but far from complete list on my main site. Obviously many of those concern the actual conflict as well as life at home. Many of the World War I novels are critical of the conduct of the war. We can read about the terrors of the war, the inefficiency, incompetence and, at times, venality of the powers that be and of the officer class. Some novels show gentlemen declining to be officers and enlisting as other ranks.

The Tate divided its exhibition into eight categories. These are:

  • Remembrance: Battlefield and Ruins
  • Remembrance: War Memorials and Society
  • Traces of War: Wounded Soldiers
  • Traces of War: Dada and Surrealism
  • The Print Portfolio (prints, primarily in France and Germany, widely distributed)
  • Return to Order
  • Imagining Post-War Society: Post-War People
  • Imagining Post-War Society: The New City

While this division is not necessarily terribly helpful in looking at the novel, it does have some relevance. The war-wounded, example, certainly appear in various novels as do ruined battlefields and the idea of a return to order. However, I shall focus on a few novels that are on my website that do look at some of the after-effects of the war. There are, of course, many other novels dealing with this topic that are not on my website. Also, some of these novels will also deal with the war itself before moving on to the after-war period.

It could be argued that many of the great novels of the post-WWI period would not have existed without World War I. Would we have had, for example, Kafka, Joyce, Woolf,Faulkner and many other fine novelists without World War I. The answer is, of course, maybe but they may have been different and we may well have had others who would have revered even more. I shall not, therefore, be looking at those writers and others as regards their writing style and experimentation (Surrealism, Dadaism, etc. probably influenced the novel but were not, on the whole as key as they were in art.)

I shall start with my favourite post-war novel and that is Ford Madox Ford‘s Parade’s End tetralogy. Much of the series – and probably the better part – is set during the war but it is also is very much concerned with what we call world-weariness though other languages have better terms. While researching this issue, this clearly came up as a general issue. Some of it, of course, was post-traumatic stress disorder (then called shell-shock) but a lot of it was a general malaise that affected a lot of people, combatants and others, and Ford deals with it.

One other great English post-World War I novel and one far less known is Henry Williamson‘s The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight series. This covers a long period – from the late 1890s to the 1950s. It covers World War I, of course and also the aftermath. The Williamson character and hero of the book, Phillip Maddison, does what Williamson actually did (and what D H Lawrence and others did) – retreat from the world, an aspect of world-weariness. Maddison also remarks on the disappearance of the rural around London.

Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs Dalloway is not the only novel to have a shell-shocked soldier in it but Septimus Smith is memorable, not least because he appears in a first-class novel, but also because he is so well portrayed by Woolf, as he retreats into his own world from which he will never return. Sadly, there were many men like him.

Two key themes for US writers were The Lost Generation and the Depression. The obvious Lost Generation work is Ernest Hemingway‘s The Sun Also Rises (UK: Fiesta) with its epigraph You are all a lost generation. Jake Barnes, the hero/narrator, has been wounded and left impotent and joins the list of literary characters, wounded physically and mentally during the war. William Faulkner‘s Soldier’s Pay is not an obvious Lost Generation novel, not least because it is set in the US and not Paris but it does show the effect of the war on those who do not go to Paris.

Many of the French novels of the period are concerned entirely with the grimness of the war, which is not surprising as much of the war was fought in France. Louis-Ferdinand Céline‘s Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) may be the most miserable book about the post-war period. Ferdinand Bardamu is a deserter and spends much of the book wandering around in a state of misery and encountering the miseries of other people. If you have any doubts as to whether people really were miserable after the war, this book should cure you.

Like other combatants, Germans tended to write about the horrors of the war. The most famous German writer (at least in the English-speaking world) on the war was Erich Maria Remarque. I have not read any of his work. His best-known work – Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) is set during the war. However, he did write a sequel: Der Weg zurück (The Road Back), about the period after the war. His Drei Kameraden (Three Comrades) was about a later period and was made into an excellent US film.

Of the relevant German books I have read, I would mention Ludwig Renn‘s Nachkrieg (After War). His previous book was set during the war while this one deals with the period after the war, with the German Revolution and Kapp Putsch.

Oskar Maria Graf‘s Anton Sittinger (which has not been translated into English) also deals with the post-war period.

Austria was also a combatant. Hermann Broch‘s Die Schlafwandler (The Sleepwalkers) was mainly about the war but it ends with the period immediately afterwards, with Austria descending into chaos. Alexander Lernet-Holenia‘s Die Standarte (The Standard; The Glory is Departed) deals with the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the exile of the Kaiser.

The war was not just about the Western front. Events took place elsewhere and World War I influenced them. I mentioned various revolutions and civil wars. The best-known book in English about the Russian Revolution is, of course, Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago). If you have not read the book, you may well have seen one of he films. Nabokov hated it. It does show the horrors of the Revolution which, of course, came about because of the war.

There are quite a few books about the Easter Rising and the Troubles afterwards. The Irish Times has a list. Liam O’Flaherty‘s Insurrection is an obvious Easter Rising novel and Elizabeth Bowen‘s The Last September an obvious one about The Troubles. However, I hope my Irish friends and relatives will not find it amiss if I mention an English writer, J G Farrell‘s Troubles, which mocks the English (though is not too flattering towards the Irish), as their Empire crumbles beneath them and, in this case, above them.

I would mention the German post-war revolution in passing. Alfred Döblin wrote November 1918: A German Revolution, a tetralogy of novels about this revolution, which I have not read. Ludwig Renn‘s Nachkrieg (After War), mentioned above, also deals with this period.

There were other places involved. I would mention Macedonia, not an obvious one. Petre M. Andreevski‘s Пиреј (Pirey) is about the aftermath of the war in Macedonia with the hated Bulgarians being replaced by the hated Serbs.

Only the first volume of Cezar Petrescu‘s Întunecare (Gathering Clouds) has been translated into English and that deals with the war. However, the second and third volumes deal with the post-war period in Romania. They have been translated into French and German and I hope to get round to them sometime.

Louis de Bernières‘s Birds Without Wings deals with the situation following the fall of the Ottoman Empire as does Dido Sotiriou‘s Ματωμενα Χωματα (Farewell, Anatolia). ‘s Նահանջը առանց երգի (Retreat without Song) deals with it from the perspective of the Armenians, the Armenian genocide and their exile to Paris.

I would mention two excellent more modern novels that deal with the aftermath of the war. Sebastian Faulks‘s Birdsong does take place, in part, during the war but also some of it is set in modern times (i.e. late 1970s) and is about the modern memory of the war. This has been quite common recently with the hundredth anniversary but was less so when Faulks wrote his book. There have been several other novels doing this as well.

Robert Edric‘s Desolate Heaven is less well-known but deals with a group of people shortly after the war who are suffering in various ways. It is a first-class novel which should be better-known.

There are many, many other worthwhile novels on this topic but I hope this will give you a flavour to supplement the Tate exhibition. The exhibition continues till 28 September 2018, so do try and see it if you are in London.

Esther Kinsky: Am Fluss (River)

The latest addition to my website is Esther Kinsky‘s Am Fluss (River). This is a beautiful book, narrated by an unnamed narrator but clearly based on the author. She has temporarily moved to London – she has no clear reason why – specifically to the very unfashionable area of Hackney, through which flows the River Lea. Part of the book is about the appeal to her and effect on her and her memories of both the Lea and several other rivers, including the Rhine by whose banks she grew up as a child. However, she also portrays the local community, many of whose denizens are immigrants and foreigners like her and shows their individuality. She photographs the river, recalls other rivers she has seen and brings back memories. Above all, her writing is superb and we cannot fail to be entranced by her ability to make the ordinary less ordinary.

Daniel Kehlmann: Tyll [Till]

The latest addition to my website is Daniel Kehlmann‘s Tyll [Till]. It is based on the legend of the trickster Till Eulenspiegel though Kehlmann has moved him from his traditional 14th century date to the Thirty Years’ War. We follow Till’s childhood – his father is executed by the Jesuits for witchcraft – and his escape from his village with Nele, his girlfriend who is not his girlfriend. They become travelling players and their reputation spreads far and wide, so much so that Till becomes the official fool of Frederick V of the Palatinate. We follow political events through the eyes of Frederick’s wife, the Scottish Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, known to history as the Winter Queen. Frederick dies of an infection while seeking help in his war from Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. Kehlmann is eager to point out the horrors of war, and this war is bloody, messy and very badly organised. It is not Kehlmann’s best – jumping from Till and his adventures to Elizabeth Stuart and her problems and the problems of her husband, but is still worth reading.

Rainald Goetz: Irre (Insane)

The latest addition to my website is Rainald Goetz‘s Irre (Insane). The book is about both a psychiatrist called Raspe and a multimedia artist called Rainald Goetz, both of whom worked in a psychiatric clinic which both have left by the end of the book. Goetz was in real life a psychiatrist and he has written an impassioned often angry book about the failures of psychiatry and psychiatrists, often taking the view that we are all insane, that psychiatrists may be more insane than the rest of us and that art may be the salvation. We follow Raspe’s career in the clinic, we hear the ravings of both the staff and patients and, in the final part, we see Goetz and, to a lesser extent Raspe trying to deal with the effect of their career on their lives. At times it reads like a cry from the heart and at others an indictment of the world we live in but it both cases it is an amazing read and we must be grateful for Fitzcarraldo for making it available in English thirty-four years after its publication in German.

Peter Härtling

I an surprised that the English-language press has not picked up on the death of German writer Peter Härtling yesterday (10 July 2017), aged 84. He will be remembered for his poetry as much as for his prose fiction. His novel Eine Frau (A Woman) was translated into English and is well worth reading. I also enjoyed Niembsch, a biographical novel about the not very well-known Austrian poet Nikolas Lenau, which has not been translated into English.

Juli Zeh: Schilf (UK: Dark Matter; US: In Free Fall)

The latest addition to my website is Juli Zeh‘s Schilf (UK: Dark Matter; US: In Free Fall). This is a novel where theoretical physics meets the detective story. Two theoretical physicists – Oskar and Sebastian – have been firm friends since meeting physics class at university, though the friendship is no longer as strong as it was. Oskar, still single, lives in Geneva, working on the particle accelerator, while Sebastian, who is married to Maike, with a son, Liam, teaches physics at the University of Freiburg. Maike, a keen cyclist, is going away on a cycling holiday and Sebastian is to take Liam to scout camp, giving him a joyful couple of weeks on his own to work on a physics problem. On the way to the scout camp, Sebastian stops to go to the toilet, leaving the sleeping Liam in the car. As he leaves the toilet, his phone rings. The car and Liam have gone and the apparent kidnapper tells him that Dabbelink must go. Dabbaelink is an anaesthetist, who cycles with Maike but whose boss is involved in a medical scandal. Sebastian eventually does kill Dabbelink, only to find, a few days later, that Liam is alive and well and at the scout camp. Schilf is sent from Stuttgart to solve the problem. Schilf is dying (he has a brain tumour) but is a very successful though unconventional detective. The second part shows how Schilf, using, to a certain degree, theoretical physics, solves the problem leading to what can only be called an unexpected and unusual conclusion. It is very cleverly done, as Zeh mixes in police work and theoretical physics, particularly the many-worlds interpretation, one of whose main exponents is Dieter Zeh (no relation).

Juli Zeh: Nullzeit (Decompression)

The latest addition to my website is Juli Zeh‘s Nullzeit (Decompression). This novel tells the story of a diving instructor, Sven. He has fled Germany, after realising he does not want to be a lawyer, accompanied by his girlfriend, Antje, ten years his junior. For fourteen years, they have now had a successful diving business. Their latest clients are Theo and Jola. He, seven years old than her, is a writer who has written nothing for some time. She is the daughter of a major German TV and film producer and is herself the star of a TV soap opera. She wants to learn to dive for a possible film role. It soon becomes apparent that things are not well between the couple. She starts flirting with Sven and Sven finds it hard to resist, even though he has been shown to be conventional and fairly passionless, at least as regards the opposite sex. The triangle between Theo, Jola and Sven develops throughout the novel and inevitably comes to a head. It is made more interesting that we follow both Sven’s narration and Jola’s diary and the two narrations give clearly different, often diametrically opposed accounts of the same events. However, as I indicate in my review, I find the plot to be inconsistent, even if the clash between the two relationships is well told.