The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, translated from the German by Philip Boehm (“Where shall I go?…For a Jew the entire Reich is one big concentration camp.”)

When I was still teaching, Code Red drills were added to the Tornado and Fire Drills we routinely practiced. The idea was to learn to protect ourselves from an armed intruder.

One day there was the signal for such a drill while I was finishing a break, and I slowly returned a book to the library and got a drink from the fountain before heading back to my room. Suddenly, every single door on every single floor was shut and locked. The classroom doors…the teacher’s lounge…the office. There was no where for me to go, no where for me to hide, and I found myself foolishly looking into the eyes of a policeman trying to explain my predicament: I hadn’t taken the warning seriously.

I have never been more frightened at school.

When I read of Otto Silbermann trying to find a place to go, after the Germans have come to his apartment, and the typically polite concierge at the hotel asks him to leave, I was reminded of that terrible feeling: having no where to go for safety.

Throughout the novel is searching for an escape. His fear and justified paranoia are ever increasing, for while he has a suitcase of money from the business he sold, he has no haven. He is separated from his wife, and his son; the later was utterly unable to procure tickets for his parents to get out of the country. (I am reminded of my own son’s often ineffective efforts and am strangely comforted.)

I can sense how closely death is nipping at my heels. It’s just a matter of being faster. If I stop I’ll go under, I’ll sink into the mire. I simply have to run, run, run. When I think about it I’ve been running all my life. But then why is it so difficult all of a sudden, now that it’s more necessary than before? Greater danger ought to bring greater strength, but instead it’s paralyzing, if the first attempts to save yourself fall through. (p. 146)

The Passenger is the best book about the terror the Nazis created in Germany that I have ever read, other than Anne Frank’s Diary. I highly recommend this book, written by a young German man in his early twenties, which has recently been rediscovered.

An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky, translated from the German by Jackie Smith (2021 International Booker Prize longlist)

Quite frankly, I struggled through this book. The writing was gorgeous, the translation superb. But, I find the loss of things like hope, faith, and morals much more tragic than the loss of the Caspian Tiger, or Villa Sacchetti, or the Love Songs of Sappho.

However, there were many beautiful quotes in the Preface which I highlighted and thought of for quite some time. I will leave them for you here:

”Indeed opinions differ as to who is closer to life: someone constantly reminded of his own mortality or someone who manages to suppress all thought of it, and likewise on the question of which is more terrifying: the notion that everything comes to an end, or the thought that it may not.”

“Being alive means experiencing loss.”

”To forget everything is bad, certainly. Worse still is to forget nothing.”

“By writing, as by reading, one can pick one’s own ancestors and establish a second, intellectual hereditary line to rival conventional biological heritage.”

“Writing cannot bring anything back, but it can enable everything to be experienced.”

“How far back could memories be traced? Beyond a certain point, everything disappeared into the fog. The ouroboros, the world serpent, bit its own tail.”

Schalansky undertakes a momentous task in inventorying losses. The only problem, for me, is that I didn’t find the ones she highlighted terribly significant in the scope of what it is that we lose.

The High-Rise Diver by Julia von Lucadou, translated from the German by Sharmila Cohen; a most extraordinary book

I read The High-Rise Diver slowly, absorbing every nuance of a strange world…which really, is not so strange after all. For I can easily imagine the control given over to cameras and tablets, the control given away by citizens even though it first may have been given willingly.

The novel begins with an image, a picture of a beautifully fit young woman, who is going to dive from the skyscraper upon which she stands. It seems an impossible feat and yet she leaps, twirling and spinning and dancing in the air, over the audience who watches her with outstretched arms. And then, a split second before she hits the pavement, she suddenly swings upward once again.

This opening shows how very fragile her life is. Although her lover, Aston, makes his living photographing her, and she affords them their lovely apartment from the efforts of her diving, it could all be destroyed in an instant. If she fell, for example. Or, if she decided that she wanted to break her contract.

Hitomi Yoshida watches Riva, the diver. She watches Riva continuously, and she takes notes on how Riva sits, what Riva eats or drinks, what Riva says. She even watches Riva and Aston in their bedroom and reports all of these observations to her boss, Hugo M. Masters. It is Hitomi’s responsibility that Riva does not give up her contract.

When Hitomi observes a biofamily on a blog she has discovered, she is so won over by the family’s warmth, largely due to the son who posts of his happiness, that she hires the son to make an intervention for Riva. Although he comes into Riva and Aston’s apartment, he does not make the changes that Hitomi anticipates. Soon, there are changes in Hitomi’s life as well, changes that are unexpected, unwelcome, and out of her control.

Great distinctions are made throughout the novel between the city (where these people live) and the “peripheries.” Those peripheries are dark, and have people stuffing their mouths with unhealthy food, and seem to be a most depressing place to live. But is the alleged grandeur of the city any better? If you don’t fulfill your contract, your housing is taken away. You must live in the bottom of a building, rather than an upper floor, where darkness abides. You must be under constant scrutiny and gain constant approval. Your biomother is in the peripheries, and you must click the mother option on the parentbot app if you seek comfort. Your whole life depends on your performance, your compliance, and your willingness to serve society.

It is a terrifying premise to me, because it does not seem so fantastical. “Let the chaos unfold, Ms. Yoshida,” a stranger tells her. And that is exactly what I feel we are doing in the real world today: letting the chaos unfold, with very little power to stop it. Although this is a novel of science fiction, I find it to be almost prescient. Its premise is endlessly fascinating.

For German Lit Month, a few considerations…

Peirene Press (You Would Have Missed Me is shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize)

Why Peirene chose to publish this book:

Today, as in the past, people flee from one country to another in the hope of finding a better future. But how do children experience such displacement? How do they cope with traumas of a refugee camp? In this novel Birgit Vanderbeke goes back to her own childhood in the divided Germany of the 1960s. She shows how the little girl she once was saved herself by imagining countries on the far side of the world. A masterpiece of memory turned into fiction. 

Written by Birgit Vanderbeke
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch

An unnamed narrator, recently bereaved, travels to Olevano, a small village south-east of Rome. It is winter, and from her temporary residence on a hill between village and cemetery, she embarks on walks and outings, exploring the banal and the sublime with equal dedication and intensity. Seeing, describing, naming the world around her is her way of redefining her place within it. Written in a rich and poetic style, Grove is an exquisite novel of grief, love and landscapes.

GROVE

Esther Kinsky

Translated by Caroline Schmidt

Published 15 April 2020
French paperback with flaps, 280 pages


A kaleidoscopic family saga told through the fractured lives of the three Moreau siblings, alongside a faltering, recovering love story, The End of Loneliness is a stunning meditation on the power of our memories, of what can be lost and what can never be let go. With inimitable compassion and luminous, affecting praise, Benedict Wells contends with what it means to find a way through life, while never giving up hope you will find someone to go with you.

Written by Benedict Wells, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

I read the introduction to German Literature Month 10 on Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat , where Caroline not only extends an invitation but outlines a few authors chosen to focus on in November (should you wish). This is always an event I appreciate very much, as it widens my knowledge of German literature greatly. Perhaps you will join us this month as well?

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (translated from the German by Ross Benjamin, Booker International Prize 2020

There’s nothing I like quite so much in a book as a story. And, who better to bring us a story of great imagination than the Germans? I think of tales from the Brothers Grimm, into which Tyll could fit in small ways: there is a dark forest, a poisoned apple, a witch, a laughing man on a tightrope, and an executioner. There are Jesuits and a hangman, forged testimonies, and an abundance of fear from the villagers.

Combined with the fear is no small amount of paranoia, which, in my opinion, seems completely justified when someone can just come into your home, dislocate your shoulders, and try you for sorcery with no justification.

Dr. Oswald Tesimond and Dr. Kircher, both Jesuits, meet Tyll when he is but a boy, left alone in the forest to guard a cart filled with flour all night. It actually ends up being two nights, as his mother left him to return home when birthing pains suddenly came upon her. Who knows what terrors he endured? But, when his father and two other strong men come upon him, Tyll is up in a tree, covered in flour, and the donkey which had been pulling their cart is beheaded. He is wearing the scrap of flesh bearing the donkey’s two ears on his head.

It is right after this accursed state that’s the two Jesuit priests come upon him, and decide that it is time to visit the boy’s home, suspicious that they have crossed paths with a warlock.

How easily, Dr. Kircher thinks, pity could overcome you, but you must not permit yourself to believe the appearance, for they are in league with the greatest power of the fallen world, and their lord is with them at every moment. That’s why it is so dangerous: during the trial, the devil can always intervene. (p. 86)

Groats, small beer, pentagrams, spells and superstition, paranoia, witch hunts and hangings. I am caught up in this medieval world that Kehlmann has created, that strangely resembles our own. Suspicions forced into fact. People wrongly accused, then killed. Tyll’s father, Claus, is hanged, and Tyll decides he must leave. Nele, he says, is coming with him.

She knew she must not think,or else she would lose her courage; or else she would stay here, as was in store for her; but he was right, you really could leave. The place where everyone thought you had to stay – in actuality nothing was keeping you there. (p. 118)

How strange it is to read this book while under quarantine from the Corona virus. The disease, poverty, and human ills become all the more tangible to me, safely ensconced within my own home but well aware of the evils without.

It is when we land in the middle of the story of the Winter King, Frederick V, and the Winter Queen, Elizabeth Stuart, that I feel we have wandered off course. Is this a story of fiction, or am I suddenly in a history book? My enthusiasm immediately dwindled in the last third of the book, which for me, ruined what had been a perfectly intriguing novel up until then.

A List of Possibilities for German Lit Month this November

from nyrb
from Scribe

Several exciting reading events are planned for November. I believe it is Nonfiction November, and Novellas in November, but my heart will always lean toward German Literature Month.

The four novels pictured above are on my radar for this “challenge”, and I own all but All For Nothing which, amazingly, was found in our local library. (Click on the caption under each cover to take you to the publisher’s page for more information about the novel.) I do not know if I will have time for all four, especially as The Eighth Life is approximately 900 pages, but I do hope to read them before 2019 ends.

And you? Are you planning to read for German Literature Month?

from Lizzy and Caroline

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (translated from the German by Jen Calleja, Man Booker International Prize 2010)

The first thing I loved about this book was how it mirrored my experience in Japan this October. I could immediately relate to seeing Japan for the first time from a Westerner’s point of view. The cleanliness, the bare beauty, the efficiency, everything described was similar to what I noticed as well.

Gilbert Silvester has dreamed that his wife Mathilde has been cheating on him. And so he flies to Tokyo on a transcontinental flight, leaving quite abruptly.

Soon he meets Yosa Tamagotchi, who is poised to throw himself in front of a train because he is terrified he won’t pass his exams. Because his beard is trendy and neat, and Gilbert is a beard researcher, Gilbert decides to speak to him. Because Yosa is a Japanese young man, and therefore extremely polite, he interrupts his plan to talk with Gilbert.

Gilbert suggests there must be a better place for Yosa’s intentions. He decides to follow the poet Basho’s footsteps to Matsushima, “the most beautiful place in Japan, the bay of pine islands.” They would travel to the pine islands, taking the same route Basho took; it would be a pilgrimage, a journey of spiritual cleansing.

Somewhere along the way, Yosa disappears. We do not find out if he has changed his mind, or if he has gone elsewhere to fulfill his original plan. Several times, Gilbert thinks he sees him, but perhaps it was only a reflection in the tea bowl or in a dream.

Gilbert makes it to the pine islands himself. He writes haiku as Basho did, and explores his journey.

20181014_203032_Burst01

Far away from home

pine trees as old as the stones –

fleeting clouds above.

This haiku examined the relationship between durability and ephemerality, the unremitting transitoriness of things, of travelling.

It is such a quiet kind of book that I didn’t realize its impact until I closed it. Only then could I see that the implications are universal. We are all ephemeral.

p.s. The night has passed since I finished this book and wrote this extremely brief post. I am still thinking about all the nuances within its pages, about the haikus and how difficult they must have been to translate accurately.

Typical of so many Japanese novels, The Pine Islands is more of a “slice of life”: dropping us in, and pulling us out, of the story before anything is truly settled. We take the pilgrimage with Gilbert, mimicking Basho’s travels. And the more I think about it, the more the novel has crept into my mind like a mist which will not readily dissipate.

(Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for my copy of The Pine Islands.)

Mailbox Monday: Four I Am Eager to Read

Children of The Cave is published by Peirene Press. It is the winner of the 2017 Finnish Savonia Literature Prize and the Kuvastaja prize for the best Finnish Fantasy Novel. It is described as, “A Gothic Victorian tale about forest children, which address the limits of science and faith…written as a diary this postmodern, ethical narrative asks questions about how we encounter the ‘other’.”

The Nocilla Trilogy includes Nocilla Dream, Nocilla Exprience, and Nocilla Lab published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on February 19, 2019. It I has been translated from Spanish, and is described as “a shot to the heart of the traditional novel.” ~J. Ernesto Ayala-Dip, Babelia

The End of Loneliness has been translated from the German by Charlotte Collins, and was published on January 29, 2019 by Penguin Books. It spent over eighty weeks on Germany’s bestseller list, won the European Union Prize for Literature, and was selected as German independent bookstores’ favorite book of 2016. It has been translated into 27 languages, and is described as “a profoundly moving portrait of what can be lost and what can never be let go.”

Seventeen is a Japanese novel by Hideo Yokoyama, bestselling author of Six Four. It is described as “an investigative thriller set amid the after math of disaster.” It is, of course, something I will read for the Japanese Literature Challenge 12 which ends April 1, 2019.

More Mailbox Monday books can be found here.

My Top Ten Books for 2018

 

It is no surprise that when I review the list of approximately fifty books I read in 2018, the ones which are my favorite are all (but one) in translation. But, that does not make them inaccessible for readers who do not normally pick up translated literature. In fact, if you are tired of the same boring mysteries, the same boring love affairs, the same boring story told over and over again, I can’t recommend each one of these enough.

My Top Ten for the Year 2018:

  1. Flights by Olga Tokarczuk: Because it deserved to win the Man Booker International Prize this year for its breathtaking writing and memorable recounting of our lives.
  2. From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan: Because I have never seen three disparate stories woven together so seamlessly, or with such power.
  3. The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti: Because it won both the Strega Award and the Prix Médicis étranger, and faultlessly told the story of two boys’ friendship, as well as their relationship with one’s father.
  4. Fever and Spear by Javier Marias: Because Javier Marias is my favorite Spanish author; everything he writes is downright lyrical.
  5. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata: Because I was enchanted by this quirky character who loved convenience stores, the reason for which I could completely understand when I was in Japan this October.
  6. Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami: Because it is an accessible, brilliant novel by my favorite Japanese author whom I never pretend to fully understand.
  7. Chess Story by Stefan Zweig: Because the tension mounted with every move, and the author wrote it in less than 100 pages.
  8. Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck: Because of the compelling side she shows for the immigrants who have no home.
  9. Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz: Because it was the most startling and upsetting book I read this year (ever?) and I will never forget it.
  10. Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Enard: Because Mattias Enard captured Michelangelo in a fresh, new way when I thought I knew him already.

And now, I wish you a Happy New Year, and many joyous reads ahead in 2019!

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (for German Lit Month 2018)

The magic comes out of the books themselves, and I have no more idea than you or any of your men how it works. (p. 170)

“Magic comes out of the books themselves…” and I have always known this to be true. Cornelia Funke gives us a world of magic, a world of books, suitable for adults as well as the children for whom it is written. Any good children’s book is worthy of an adult as well.

What is the best part of this story? Is it the way that each chapter begins with an enticing quote from another book, helping us to predict what that chapter may hold (or luring us to reread the book from which it came)?

Is it the way that she has captured the bibliophile’s love of literature, with homes which are stacked with books in the hallways, stairs, and on every available surface?

Or, perhaps it is the adventure story itself, with such captivating characters as Silvertongue, who is able to read people out of, and into, books; perhaps it is Meggie, who longs for the return of her father who has been captured by Capricorn.

I know that for me, this fantasy novel has far more impact than any Harry Potter book. It’s surrealism hovers on the brink of reality for how well it brings the meaning of literature to life.