Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Invention of Life

Johannes, the narrator of the novel Die Erfindung des Lebens (The Invention of Life), grows up in a small family with his loving parents in Cologne in the 1950s. But Johannes’ start in life is overshadowed by a history of traumata and terrible losses in the past – experiences that made his mother literary speechless and that also affect Johannes: he is mute, like his mother.

The first part of the book describes the life and daily routine of the three members of the family who lead an almost symbiotic life with very few contacts outside the family. Shopping or playing on the playground in the presence of his mother are a real torture for the child due to the lack of understanding and empathy of the biggest part of their surrounding. Only the walks with the father who takes him to places where Johannes is accepted without questions asked, are a temporary relief from the boy’s loneliness.

But things are changing step by step, thanks to a benevolent uncle who presents his piano to Johannes’ mother; she was once a talented pianist. Reluctantly, she takes up playing again and starts to teach her son too: for Johannes the beginning of a new life devoted to music – and also the proof that he will be more in life than ‘a mute idiot’, as his environment, including his school teacher, frequently tells him.

While music is one of the triggers for a long and painful process of becoming a ‘normal’ child (and also for his mother to regain her speech), it is finally the father who with his positive attitude to life and his understanding what is good for the development of his son, starts a program that could not have been better conceived by an experienced psychologist.

This program includes long walks in the country side, lessons in drawing, regular writing exercises in order to memorize new words, expressions and discoveries in nature, and also physical activities that strengthen Johannes also in this respect. That all this is done in the absence of his mother may be the key to break the extremely strong bond with her. From the father Johannes learns also why his mother is like that – Johannes had four brothers, but they all died before his birth. The circumstances how all this happened are revealed only much later by an uncle of Johannes.

When the recovery of this family is already a miracle, the way to breaking the spell of the past is just the first part of the novel. Johannes has to go through many difficult experiences in school and later life – he has always problems to develop close relations with other people and also his dream to become a professional pianist will not become true despite his great talent. Devastated he returns from the Conservatorio in Rome to live again with his parents – but again, life has a surprise for him…

This novel is written in the tradition of the Entwicklungs- and Künstlerroman; Johannes is writing this novel in Italy, where he spent the happiest part of his life – also this a reference to many literary works of the German tradition (there are of course a few Goethe references as well in the text). Johannes finds in Italy not only his true vocation, and the memories of his love story with Clara when he was a student; he rediscovers what life is about, grows close to a woman and her daughter, and in the end all is (possibly) well…

You know, I am not taking up easily books with almost 700 pages, like the edition I was reading. Such a chunky book requires a lot of time and we all can remember experiences when it turned out not to be worth it. Here this was not the case. I enjoyed Die Erfindung des Lebens (The Invention of Life) thoroughly.

I could immediately relate to Johannes and his fate and although the novel is full with descriptions of daily life, I never found it dull or boring. Ortheil is an experienced novelist, but it was a good decision to tell the story of his life (because this novel is almost an autobiography) when he was already in his fifties; otherwise he would have been too close to the young Johannes and this lack of distance would have spoiled this very touching book, I suppose. It is – beside other things – a declaration of love to Italy, and also to Ortheil’s father; Johannes’ father in this novel is one of the most endearing portraits of a father I know of in literature.

The book is not yet translated in English. Publishers, where are you? 


Hanns-Josef Ortheil: Die Erfindung des Lebens, Luchterhand, München 2009

The author talks here about his novel and its autobiographical background (in German).

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or 
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A Brazilian in Berlin

The political changes in Europe 1989/90 affected probably no other city more than Berlin. The divided city was not only re-united but became once again a magnet for writers, artists, and all kind of creative people. With them came the hipsters, this sort of people that is so difficult to categorize and for whom Berlin seems to be the place for a never-ending party.

In literary terms, Berlin is – like any other bigger city – the scenery for many novels and stories; it also seems to be a good inspirational place for autobiographical books with sketches or travel notes. Cees Nooteboom’s Berlin Notes or his Roads to Berlin are good examples, as well as Wladimir Kaminer’s Russian Disco, a bestseller with cult status in Germany (more than 1.3 million sold copies). 

When João Ubaldo Ribeiro, the most famous contemporary Brazilian novelist (I am talking about literature here, not drivel – which excludes Paulo Coelho of course), came to Berlin in the early 1990s with his family, he published during his one year as a guest of DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) and after his return to Brazil a number of newspaper columns about his life and experience in Berlin which were later collected under the title A Brazilian in Berlin.

His adventurous travel to Berlin, experiences in supermarkets or on the street (the aggressive Berlin cyclists were probably never described more up-to-the-point), examples for the mentality of the Berliners, visits of classmates of the kids at home, the very different concept of the word “tomorrow” in Brazil and Germany, the phenomenon that he met a lot of Berliners but no Germans at all, the naked people in Halensee (Freikörperkultur or short FKK is a very serious German movement, and indeed there is probably no other country with fewer legal restrictions of public nudity than Germany), or the unexplicable habit of many Berliners to go to public readings – voluntarily! – all this and a few other experiences are subject of Ubaldo Ribeiro’s causeries.

Although all his texts breathe humour and mild (self-)irony, the author has also a sensorium for the more serious effects of re-unification: since he knows the city from visits before the re-unification, he feels a certain difference in the attitude of people to visitors. Since Berlin was overwhelmed by visitors (and migrants) in the years after the changes, he feels that people are more stressed, less polite. Something seems to have changed…well, Berlin has never been a place of particular politeness, and typical Berliners are famous for their rough wit and no-bullshit attitude.

The book is a very fast read and a suitable preparation when you go to visit Berlin or plan to live there for a while. It was the first book I read by this author and it made me read his more serious works such as Sargento Getulio. The only downside of the book reviewed here: it is not translated in English. 

Joao Joao2


João Ubaldo Ribeiro: Ein Brasilianer in Berlin, translated by Ray-Güde Mertin, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1994; Um Brasileiro em Berlim, Objetiva 1995 

Wladimir Kaminer: Russian Disco, translated by Michael Huise, Ebury Press, London 2002
Cees Nooteboom: Berliner Notizen, translated by Rosemarie Still, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1991
Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Berlin, translated by Laura Watkinson, MacLehose Press 2013

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or 
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Bibliomania, or The House of Paper

Are you a bookworm? Great, then we have a thing in common! Are you a bibliophile, a person who loves books? You are not alone! Are you a book collector? Yes, I also belong to that species! Are you a bibliomane? Uh-oh, then you might be in trouble!

According to Wikipedia, “bibliomania can be a symptom of obsessive–compulsive disorder which involves the collecting or even hoarding of books to the point where social relations or health are damaged.” Next to this definition you see a photo of some bookshelves with the neat caption: “Cluttered bookshelf, one symptom of bibliomania.” – No, the photo was not taken at my home – since even cluttering my bookshelves isn’t sufficient anymore for all the books at my place…

Bibliophilia or bibliomania can even have tragic consequences, in fiction and in real life; Peter Kien in Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-fe comes to mind, as well as the real-life biblio-criminals Don Vicente or Magister Tinius, two priests who committed murder out of an insane compulsion to increase their libraries. (Isn’t it interesting that of all people two priests are the most extreme cases of book-insanity?)

The small and charming book The Paper House by Carlos Maria Dominguez (with beautiful illustrations by Peter Sis) fits very well here.

The ingredients: Bluma Lennon, an attractive female English literature professor with a – in the true sense of the word – fatal love of the poetry of Emily Dickinson; her Argentinian part-time lover and successor at the university who is the narrator of the story; a stained and gritty copy of Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line; and Carlos Brauer, an Uruguyan book collector who sent this strange copy to Bluma.

While on a visit at home in Buenos Aires, the narrator uses the opportunity to go to Montevideo and to investigate about Brauer and his relationship with Bluma. What he learns from the owner of an antiquarian bookshop in the Uruguayan capital, and a book collector who knew Brauer well, makes the narrator – and the reader! – more and more curious; and when he finally discovers the House of Paper to which the title alludes, Brauer has become a real mystery. Of course I will not give away the full story here – but for addicted readers like you this small book will be a treat, that’s for sure.

The House of Paper is a very enjoyable novella that I read in one sitting. For all of you that have an issue with bibliomania, the book may be also of educational value. Carlos Maria Dominguez is a very productive Argentinian author who lives in Uruguay. The House of Paper makes me curious to read more of his books. If I am not mistaken, this is the only book by him so far translated in English; two of his novels and another book with stories are available in German.


Carlos Maria Dominguez: The House of Paper, translated by Nick Caistor, illustrations by Peter Sis, Harcourt, San Diego 2005

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A Lost Opportunity

Once again The Luzhin Defense – this time it’s about the film based on Vladimir Nabokov’s novel.

There are thousands of movies based on books; some of them are great artworks in their own right; many are quite ok; and a very big number is simply disappointing. Unfortunately, the feature film The Luzhin Defense (UK/France 2000; Director: Marleen Gorris; Screenplay: Peter Berry; Actors: John Turturro, Emily Watson, Stuart Wilson et al.) belongs to the last category in my opinion.

That the short and fat Luzhin of the novel is played by the haggard John Turturro: granted, because he is a good actor. That the story was transposed from Berlin to an Italian hotel: granted, because it means the film focuses even more on chess than the novel. That the role of Valentinov is expanded in the film compared to the novel: granted, because this ambigous character creates additional interest. That the main female character has now a name: granted, because her having no first name works well in the book but wouldn’t work in a movie.

With other decisions of the film crew I am not at all d’accord. To introduce a major character (Jean de Stassard) that is not in the book and that doesn’t fit at all in this story makes me like this film already much less. 

But the worst are the two major chess scenes in the film that make a real disaster of this attempt to visualize Nabokov’s book.

In the semifinale of the tournament in which Luzhin participates in the movie he seems to be in a hopeless position. But thanks to a hidden brilliant combination he can defeat his opponent and qualify for the final game against his main rival Turati. And here, in showing this supposedly brilliant combination – which is based on a real tournament game Dr. Vidmar-Dr.Euwe, Karlsbad 1929 – the movie lost me completely:


This is the real position in the historical game in which Vidmar is threatened to be checkmated in the next move. But he found a spectacular rescue and played in cold blood 1.Re8+ Bf8 (1.-Kh7 is answered by 2.Qd3+ and black loses its Rook on c2), and now 2.Rxf8+! Kxf8 3.Nf5+


In the real game, Euwe resigned here already. 3.-Ke8 is followed by 4.Qe7#, and 3.-Kg8 is answered of course by 4.Qf8+!! Kxf8 (4.-Kh7 5.Qg7# doesn’t help) 5.Rd8# – really a brilliant end and a clever choice for the movie.

However, someone in the film crew placed the black rook on c1 and not on c2, and since Luzhin’s opponent plays until the end, we see – under frenetic applause from the tournament kibitzers in the movie the following key position on screen:


The Film-Luzhin plays exactly like Vidmar, but the last move is illegal with the black rook on c1! To make things worse, in the movie position White is not threatened at all by mate on h2 and the simple 1.Rxc1 wins in the most trivial way.

For anyone familiar with the rules of the game, this scene is ruining the whole movie. As if this was not enough the film provides us with a kitschy and completely unrealistic ending that is not only violating the content and spirit of Nabokov’s book but that would make even each B-movie screenwriter in Hollywood look like a great artist.

A lost opportunity. 

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An Afternoon in the Museum

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to pay a visit to the newly opened National Art Gallery “Square 500” in Sofia which shows right now a huge exhibition curated by two former museum directors. The exhibition gives an overview over the Bulgarian Museum collections of the National Gallery (for Bulgarian art) and of the National Museum for Foreign Art.

The museum, ridiculously dubbed “the Bulgarian Louvre” by a part of the media and political “elite” of the country was already before its opening subject to many headlines in the media, namely because of the delayed opening and – not completely untypical for Bulgaria – because of alleged irregularities in the procurement and tender process of the reconstruction of the building that houses the museum. A rather big amount of tax payers’ money went into the coffers of the shady construction mogul who – allegedly – won the manipulated tender because he – allegedly – is a friend of the Minister of Culture.

If these rumors are really true I cannot say – but I wouldn’t be surprised. As an art lover I am of course more concerned about the result and I want to give my informed opinion about it here.

The edifice of the building which houses the museum is a late 19th century design in Viennese style, adapted after WWII to the needs of a museum and again changed now by several modern attachments, all in all a worthy location for such a museum.

Most of the artworks I saw in the exhibition were already known to me – except for a few that are borrowed from other collections for this exhibition – it is basically a combination of the works that were housed before in the two separate museums mentioned above. So regarding what I saw I can say: a good overview about Bulgarian art since the 1830s until 1989 (I didn’t see any artwork produced after the collapse of communism – if this reflects a lack of budget for new acquisitions in the last 25 years or a political statement that tells us that there is no good art produced in Bulgaria in the last decades according to the exhibition curators I don’t know), and a – in my opinion not very favorable mix with foreign artworks that are hung frequently together with Bulgarian artists of the same period.

While the Bulgarian art collection is in a way representative (except for the most recent period), the presented examples of foreign art are in most cases mediocre. It is also not visible or explained why the artworks are hung in that specific neighborhood (which frequently has no relation/influence with the respective Bulgarian artist).

Another thing that struck me was the lighting: in some rooms it was really awful and much too intense. Artworks are sensitive items and the light must be carefully balanced between the need to protect it against possible damage and the wish of the visitors to see and study it in the best possible way. The lighting as it is now doesn’t do justice to either of these requirements.

I had also the impression that the plates which describe the artwork have been done in the very last moment; there are frequently four or five of such very basic paper clippings stuck to the wall in one place and the visitor has to guess which plate belongs to which artwork. It looks cheap and inadequate.

Alas, the most surprising thing for me was something else: when you prepare such an exhibition which shows a considerable part of the visual art heritage of the country and which many people would like to see, you should make sure that people really see it when they visit the building. My guess is that a lot of the visitors will not have seen many of the artworks because the orientation in the exhibition is very very difficult.

The exhibition covers several floors and the whole building is a little bit like a labyrinth – there are only a few (very small) arrows that guide the visitors, room numbers are missing frequently, as a visitor you stumble from 19th century Bulgarian art to Christian Indian art from Goa, to Japanese woodcuts, and you have never an idea what comes next or what you have probably missed when you have once chosen a direction that was not the one intended by the exhibition makers (but which you can only guess). Friends who visited the exhibition told me for example that they almost didn’t find the room with the artwork of Vladimir Dimitrov-Maistora, one of the most famous Bulgarian painters, and only because of their persistence they found the hidden room where his paintings from the collection are displayed. And I am sure I saw – probably! – all works only because I am a very persistent visitor. Just when I prepared to leave I realized I had missed a complete flight of rooms with four more exhibition rooms!

That the museum shop where you can buy the exhibition catalogue and many other catalogues and books is hidden in a corner at the very edge of the outermost corner of the building and not in the entrance area where it belongs adds to the picture. The exhibition makers could easily print a small map on the backside of the ticket for orientation – this small thing would add indeed a lot of value for the visitors. But no, you have to pay 10 Leva (5 Leva for students, pensioners, unemployed), a proud amount considering the average salaries of the Bulgarians – and then you are on your own in the building. 

A nuisance: while most living Bulgarian artists are not at all represented in the exhibition, the Minister of Culture, Mr. Razhidov, a sculptor of modest talent has two of his own artworks in the show. It reminds me of the fact that when I visited the last time the small gallery in the Ministry of Culture it displayed an exhibition with works of – the Minister. Remember Alek Popov’s description of the visiting sculptor in his Mission London? I am not sure but my strong guess is that it is based on a real person most Bulgarians know…

That even if Mr. Razhidov would be a second Giacometti it would not be appropriate to include his own artworks in any exhibitions sponsored by the Ministry he leads seems to have never crossed his mind. It is called “Conflict of Interest” and borders the territory of outright corruption. He uses his position and taxpayers’ money to increase his popularity and potential market value as an artist. And of course he gets away with it. Also a part of the “Culture” he is promoting.

Conclusion: if you are in Sofia and are interested in Bulgarian art, this exhibition is a must. The collection itself is the by far best in that field in Bulgaria or anywhere else, the result of decades of diligent collecting. (When Lyudmila Zhivkova, the daughter of the dictator Todor Zhivkov was de facto in charge of the collection, it increased considerably – mainly by acquiring fake artworks she was tricked into buying by some clever crooks.) That this extraordinary show is so poorly prepared and presented is a pity and shows again the lack of professionalism that is so typical for many of those people who are politically responsible for Bulgarian Culture. 


Zahari Zograf, Self-portrait, National Art Gallery Sofia, ca. 1840

The exhibition can be visited at the building of the National Gallery of Foreign Art, Sofia, 19 February Str. No.1, near the Cathedral Alexander Nevski 

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A short note

Those who follow this blog regularly may have remarked that my reviews have become a bit more rare recently.

I just want to inform my regular readers that this reflects in no way a decrease in interest in blogging; it is just that my work, traveling and some new projects keep me quite busy these days. I hope to resume my old frequency regarding the publication of my book reviews here very soon.

Talking of new projects, I would like to mention that I am embarking also on a few book-related new activities: I am translating a book and I am (together with a friend and associate) undertaking the first steps as a (micro-)publisher and literary agent. I will report in due time more in detail about these projects. 

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or 
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