Tag Archives: emigration

Drei Gedichte von Vladislav Hristov

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цял ден мета                                                                   
един огромен паркинг
листопадът е в разгара си
не бива да се обръщам назад
да гледам как капят
проклетите листа
германците са учтиви хора
ще кажат довечера
о хер христов
чудесно сте измели
елате утре
половин час
по-рано

den ganzen tag kehre ich
einen riesigen parkplatz
das fallen der blätter ist in vollem gange
ich sollte mich nicht umdrehen
um mir anzusehen wie
das verdammte laub fällt
die deutschen sind höfliche leute
am abend werden sie sagen
oh herr hristov
grossartig haben sie gekehrt
kommen sie morgen
eine halbe stunde
früher


 

застудя
кучетата ги облякоха
с вълнени пуловери
моя съм го забравил
в българия

es ist kalt geworden
die hunde sind bekleidet
mit wollenen pullovern
meinen habe ich vergessen
in bulgarien


 

на 2000 километра оттук
доматите зреят
първите череши
вече са на пазара
слънцето влиза
в детската ми стая
през прозореца
който майка всяка сутрин
отваря

2000 kilometer von hier
reifen die tomaten
die ersten kirschen
sind schon auf dem markt
die sonne kehrt ein
in mein kinderzimmer
durchs fenster
das mutter jeden morgen
öffnet

aus: Vladislav Hristov: Germanii (Владислав Христов: Германии), Ergo, Sofia 2014;  aus dem Bulgarischen von Thomas Hübner

 

© Vladislav Christov and Ergo Books, 2014.
© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Hesse/Mann Letters

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This review is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

Thomas Mann received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, Hermann Hesse in 1946. It goes without saying that I was reading the correspondence of these two eminent writers with great curiosity.

It starts in 1910. Hesse has published in his journal Der März a moderately critical review of Mann’s new novel Royal Highness that seemed to him a bit too harsh afterwards. Therefore Hesse is in a way apologizing to Mann in his very first letter. But Thomas Mann is not offended and answers in his typical conciliatory tone that he appreciates Hesse’s “constructive” remarks. He even writes that he considers to submitting something for publication in Der März but mentions also the fact that he is so busy right now.

After this quite hopeful beginning, the communication lingers rather sluggishly between the two for many years, until 1927 or 1928. The reason for this may be partly because they were too immersed in their own writing business but I suppose it had also something to do with principal differences between the two at least during that period.

While Hesse was a pacifist from an early stage of his life who emigrated to neutral Switzerland, distancing himself from Germany also by adopting Swiss citizenship – he was by the way born as a Russian citizen and was technically never a German national – Thomas Mann was during WWI not free from nationalistic feelings, which he expressed most famously in his Reflections of an Unpolitical Man. But while he fell out completely with his brother Heinrich for several years (they later reconciled) for political reasons – Heinrich was for him the principal partisan of superficial French civilisation as opposed to the much deeper German Kultur of which he saw himself as the main representative – the relations with Hesse remained cordial even during this time.

The lost war and the fierce struggle of the young Weimar Republic for survival from the very beginning against radical elements from the left and even more violently from the right caused Thomas Mann to reassess his previous position. He turned into one of the most outspoken defenders of the new democracy against the radical elements in Germany and in the 1920s he became a kind of unofficial intellectual president of the Republic. In this period he not only became close again with brother Heinrich, also the correspondence with Hesse becomes more regular and much more interesting.

They discuss literature – Hesse’s Steppenwolf has just appeared and praised highly by Thomas Mann -, they discuss Literaturpolitik, especially the role of the Prussian Academy. Mann wants to turn this body into a bulwark against the radicals and seeks for Hesse’s support. But Hesse has already disengaged himself completely from Germany. It’s not that he doesn’t care for it. But he simply doesn’t see the point to get involved in the meetings and proceedings of an organization with which he feels no longer any bond.

The probably most interesting part of the correspondence covers the time from 1933 to 1945. While Mann travels abroad to avoid probable arrest, he still has hope that his works will be available to readers in Germany even after the Nazis took power there. Only after the University of Bonn strips him of his doctoral degree honoris causa and after an intervention of his daughter Erika, he breaks “officially” with Germany and makes it clear that he is siding with the emigrants.

It is revealing that some newspapers in Switzerland, where Hesse is residing, attack Mann and the other exiled German writers in a rather rude and disgusting way. The attack was orchestrated by Eduard Korrodi, a mediocre literary critic with whom also Hesse had a previous falling-out.

Family news (especially touching Mann’s reaction on the suicide of his son Klaus), health issues, exchange of evaluations of the actual political situation, difficulties with publishers or the life of an émigré who has to settle in a surrounding that is completely new to him, support to other émigrés who cannot support themselves or need an affidavit for immigration – there are hardly any issues which the two are not discussing in this interesting correspondence. We as readers see also how the mature masterpieces of the two writers, Hesse’s Glass Bead Game and Mann’s Lotte in Weimar, Doctor Faustus and Felix Krull take shape. Mann, although two years older than Hesse and despite the fact that for several years he was “on the road”, seems to be the more vital one. Hesse’s productivity as a writer was seriously reduced by bad health and he mentions frequently how worn out he feels.

This correspondence contains nothing sensational but it gives interesting insights in the lives and workshops of two of the greatest German-language writers of the 20th century. For me it was touching to see how both men, so different they were in many respects, started to develop a friendship. There is not one occasion when you have the feeling that there is a tension between them or a strong disagreement. I don’t want to psychologize but I guess that the two who read each other’s work carefully understood that also the other one had his own share of demons deep inside and that might be one reason why they felt connected. There is also a deep sense of civility in both writers which they both appreciate very much, especially in a time of barbarity. They both saw themselves also as representatives of the “true” Germany – the one that holds culture and humanism high. When Thomas Mann said that

“Where I am, there is Germany. I carry my German culture in me. I have contact with the world and I do not consider myself fallen,”

we can be sure that Hermann Hesse completely agreed with that notion.

It made me also feel a bit nostalgic to read this correspondence. Hesse – who added frequently a small watercolor painting as a header – and Mann were blessed letter writers. Most of the longer letters seem to be carefully composed although the communication flows so freely. The form of address is changing over the years from the very formal Sehr geehrter Herr to Lieber Freund (dear friend) – especially for the son of a Senator from Lübeck this was an extraordinary sign of connectedness; Mann was usually very polite and friendly, but also distanced in most of his correspondence with other partners.

I am wondering if there will be any comparable correspondence of writers in the time of email and other forms of instant messaging – or is this something we have lost for good?

HesseMann

Hermann Hesse / Thomas Mann: The Hesse/Mann Letters, transl. by Ralph Manheim, Jorge Pinto Books, New York 2005

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

The Passport

glm_iv1

This review is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

 

When in 2009 the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the Prize for Literature to Herta Müller, whose opus magnum The Hunger Angel had just appeared in print, I thought that at least this one time the jurors in Stockholm had shown not only that they are able of a decent choice, but that sometimes they have even a sense of timing. Because The Hunger Angel marked the point when Herta Müller got also outside the German-speaking world the attention she deserves. Her first translated work available in English, The Passport, got some favorable reviews but was commercially not a big success.

Müller’s works – and The Passport is no exception – are almost exclusively set in Romania, the country in which she was born and grew up in a small German village (Nitzschkydorf) during the time of the more and more paranoid dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. Although Romania didn’t adopt a policy of ethnic cleansing after WWII against the ethnic Germans living there since centuries like most other Eastern European countries did, the situation for the Banat Swabians (Donauschwaben) and the Saxons in Transsylvania (Siebenbürger Sachsen) was far from comfortable.

Most of them had embraced the Nazi ideology during the war, many enrolled in the SS, and the whole community had to pay a high price after the war for this act of treason as it was seen: a big part of the men and women from the German community were sent as slave workers to Siberia for five years and more. Many of them died there and those who survived came back considerably aged and without any hope or illusion for the future. In Siberia they had seen what they before refused to see: that people are able to do any act of cruelty or moral sordidness for a piece of bread.

This is the historical backdrop of The Passport, a very short book of only 100 pages, with chapters that are short or even very short. But this book is anything but a fast and easy read.

Windisch, the village miller, has decided to apply for a passport for himself and his family. The passport is necessary if you want to travel abroad or emigrate to (Western) Germany, as the Windischs plan. Windisch is already waiting more than two years and a half, but doesn’t seem to make any progress with his application, despite the fact that he is bribing the mayor with sacks full of flour. But the flour is not enough, the priest (he has to issue the birth certificates) and the militiaman (his support is crucial for receiving the passports) also need to be bribed.

When Windisch finally understands what these two men want, he is sending his daughter to them…After she sleeps with them, the passport will be finally arranged. In the last chapter we see the Windisch family coming for a visit to their home village after their emigration. While many other Germans emigrated too, a few, like Konrad the night watchman have not. Konrad has even married and intends to stay in Romania, despite all the problems.

Müller arranges her material in a very interesting way. The short chapters have sometimes the character of stand-alone short stories, sometimes they are like vignettes that allow the reader for a moment to catch a glimpse of something that he usually would not see.

One of the most remarkable things in Müller’s book is the language. Very simple and short compact sentences full of poetic, sometimes surrealistic metaphors. The German title would be literally translated “A man is nothing but a pheasant in the world”, obviously a local saying that is quoted in an early conversation between Windisch and Konrad by the latter. Windisch retorts that a man is strong, stronger as the beasts, but later after his daughter Amalie has slept with the village officials, he is repeating Konrad’s sentence as if to remind the reader that he was wrong and too optimistic about the strength of man.

The story of Windisch and his family is intervowen with other stories: the story of Rudi the glass maker who is not right in his head, and his parents; the story of Dieter, Amalie’s friend, who is shot dead while obviously attempting to cross the Danube to Yugoslavia; the story of Konrad, the night watchman; the story of the skinner and his wife; the story of the carpenter; and also stories that are told like anecdotes from the past: the story when the king passed by with his train before the war and the village couldn’t sing the welcome song because the king was asleep and his entourage insisted on not waking him up for some villagers; and there are even stories about the owl that was seen in the village and that the villagers consider as a sign for something to happen; and most disturbingly the story of the apple tree that was eating his own apples before the war and that had to be burned therefore to drive away all the evil.

There are signs of alienation everywhere. When Windisch passes the church, he wants to go inside to pray. But:

“The church door is locked. Saint Anthony is on the other side of the wall. He is carrying a white lily and a brown book. He is locked in.”

There is no hope to be expected in this world from the church, St. Anthony, or even God. Later in the book, when we learn about the disgusting priest, who uses his power position – without birth certificate no emigration – to extort sex from the women he fancies, we understand why.

There is alienation of course between the Romanians and the Germans; the Romanians are contemptuosly called “Wallachians” by the Germans and vice versa the Romanians wonder how, after Hitler, it is possible that there are still Germans in Romania. But it is not only for the Romanians that the Swabians feel contempt, the same goes for their feelings for the Germans in Western Germany, especially the women. “The worst Swabian woman is still better than the best over there.”

Children cannot escape this paranoid world of the village where the Securitate, the mighty intelligence network of the secret police is watching  over everything. Amalie, who works as a schoolteacher, is instructing the kids:

“Amalie points on the map. “This land is our Fatherland”, she says. With her fingertip she searches for the black dots on the map. “These are the towns of the Fatherland,” says Amalie. “The towns are the rooms of the big house, our country. Our fathers and mothers live in houses. They are our parents. Every child has its parents. Just as the father in the house in which we live is our father, so Comrade Nicolae Ceausescu is the father of our country. And just as the mother in the house in which we live is our mother, so Comrade Elena Ceausescu is the mother of our country. Comrade Nicolae Ceausecu is the father of all children. And Comrade Elena Ceausescu is the mother of all children. All the children love comrade Nicolae and comrade Elena, because they are their parents.” ” 

(It is rather embarrassing that The Times Literary Supplement (!) claims in its review: “Every such incidence of misdirection is the whole book in miniature, for although Ceausescu is never mentioned, he is central to the story, and cannot be forgotten.” – This happens when reviewers don’t read the book they are supposed to write about.)

Even worse is the alienation between men and women. Men use their position to get what they want from the women: sex. In Siberia, Amalie’s mother was a whore. She was selling her body for food and warm clothes in order to survive, and now Amalie is stepping in her mother’s shoes, spreading her legs for the priest and the militaman to get herself and her family out of this place where all the children love the parents of the country so much.

It is revealing that when she was a child and was almost raped by Rudi, her father was blaming her, not Rudi: “Amalie will bring disgrace down on us.” The conversation that the drunk Windisch, his wife and his daughter have over lunch after Amalie’s visit to the priest and the militiaman, is rather depressing, but it shows exactly how things are between men and women in this village, in this society:

“Windisch’s wife sucks the small, white bones. She swallows the short pieces of meat on the chicken’s neck. “Keep your eyes open, when you get married,” she says. “Drinking is a bad illness.” Amalie licks her red fingertips. “And unhealthy,” she says. Windisch looks at the dark spider. “Whoring is healthier,” he says. Windisch’s wife strikes the table with her hand.”

The Passport is a difficult, sometimes even depressing read. A paranoid system like Romania under Ceausescu is doing the things to people that Herta Müller is describing in this book. It is poisoning even the most private feelings, activities, relationships. It is easy to understand that the author’s honest, unvarnished description of German village life in the Banat didn’t bring her many friends in her own community. Until recently she was still the target of smear campaigns of former Securitate agents and Danube Swabians who want to paint a nicer picture of their own past – for whatever reasons.

If you look for an easy, fast, superficially enjoyable book – this one is not for you. But if you like to read a beautifully crafted, multi-layered book about the human condition in times like ours, I can heartily recommend The Passport to you. It is also a reminder that there is absolutely nothing to feel nostalgic about for any dictatorship like Ceausescu’s Romania was.

 

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Herta Müller: The Passport, transl. by Martin Chalmers, Serpent’s Tail, London 1989 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The key to the Pasha’s library

As readers of Andre Aciman’s wonderful memoir Out of Egypt will know, Egypt was until the 1950s home of a Levantine Jewish community that lived for most of its history comparatively well integrated and respected in this part of the world.

Multi-cultural Cairo and Alexandria were at that time home to many religious and ethnic minorities that over the centuries had learned to cope with each other in a – mostly – peaceful way. Many members of the Jewish community like the Cattaui family had risen to great wealth and affluence. With the rise of Egyptian nationalism, the wars in 1948 and 1956 and the erection of an authoritarian regime of officers under the leadership of Nasser, this period came abruptly to an end. The Jews were no longer welcome in Egypt and had to leave, usually with very little except their lives and a few clothes.

This is the historical backdrop of two books of memoirs by Lucette Lagnado, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit and The Arrogant Years. Lagnado, a journalist working for major newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, was born in Egypt, where she spent her first years before emigrating via France to the US with her parents and siblings.

The books are covering roughly a century. Whereas The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit focuses mainly on her father, The Arrogant Years is mainly devoted to the life of the author’s mother. Although the two works cover the same period, Lagnado avoids redundancy as much as possible which makes both books worth reading.

The author’s father, Leon, was obviously a larger-than-life figure: he was very tall, good-looking, with impeccable manners and a talent for languages; a boulevardier that liked to go out every evening until late at night; a business man that was so secretive about his business that even his close family members had no idea if his business was thriving or if he was on the verge of bankruptcy; a womanizer that was rumored to have had many affairs (including the charismatic singer Om Kalthoum); a man that was at home with the British officers in Cairo during WWII who dubbed him “the Captain”; but at the same time a devout Jew who observed all rules of his creed and was praying every day in the synagogue; a patriarch with a very traditional mindset when it came to the role of women in the family; but at the same time a very kind and patient father (especially with his youngest daughter, the author).

Edith, the author’s mother, was considerably younger than her husband. Although her background was very different from Leon’s – her family was very poor -, her charm and good looks, together with her good education and humble manners made Leon approach her. The first chapter of Sharkskin which describes the courting makes quite an entertaining read. There was not much romance, the whole affair was conducted in a quite businesslike way by Leon and Alexandra, Edith’s mother, who set the rules for the further proceedings.

But the marriage proved to be a rather unhappy affair. Leon didn’t change his lifestyle of going out late every evening (except Sabbath) without his wife. Edith, who had worked as a very young teacher and librarian for the Cattaui family, the most influential Jewish family in Egypt, had to give up her job she loved so much and was confined to the home where she was supposed to take care of the children and the household, which was de facto dominated by Leon’s mother, a rather stern woman from Aleppo who insisted to speak only Arabic (usually Levantine families like the Lagnados would speak French as native language).

Both parents felt deeply enrooted in Egypt. While more and more of their friends and relatives were leaving the country, they tried to hold out as long as possible. But after a short arrest of the oldest sister Suzette, it is obvious that they have to leave. In Paris, the family which is now completely depended on the support by some organizations that deal with Jewish refugees, has to wait quite a long time until finally being admitted to be resettled in the US.

Life in New York held many difficulties in stock for the Lagnados: Leon, once a quite wealthy and successful businessman, had to support his family with the small earnings he made as a street seller of fake silk ties; the mother’s dream “to rebuild the hearth” fell apart since the older children were step by step going their own way or even leaving home for good. Life in Cairo was better in so many respects for the older generation and the nostalghia they are feeling in relation to their home country doesn’t exactly help them to embrace the American Way of Life that seems so strange to them.

While the author’s father seems to get tired from life and is withdrawing more and more to his prayer books, Edith surprisingly re-invents herself. She applies for a library job and despite lacking degrees or practical experience (except for her work as a young girl in the Cattaui library), she is surprisingly hired. From the author’s descriptions it becomes clear that this – beside her childhood – was probably the happiest time in the life of her mother, who deeply loved (mainly French) literature and who had read the complete Marcel Proust already as a young girl in Cairo.

Lagnado’s books touch on many interesting issues: the school and university system in the US; the typical problems of immigrant children who “try to fit in”; the change of the role of women in family and society that started in the 1960s with the Women’s Lib movement; the role of tradition and religion in the Jewish community; and also the situation of the health sector in the States. Quite a lot of the books deal with the ailments of her parents and herself (Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s in the case of Leon; a series of debilitating strokes in the case of Edith; and Hodgkin’s disease in the case of the author). But that’s not a criticism: this family has had more than their fair share of sufferings.

Lagnado’s books are not only a monument for her parents, but also for a now almost extinct specific Levantine Jewish culture. At the end of both books, she is able to reconnect herself with her own past and the past of this community. After many years, she is visiting Cairo again, standing on the balcony of her former family home in Malaka Nazli (now: Ramses) Street. And somewhere in Switzerland she tracks down the remains of the famous Cattaui library, including the books that were purchased decades ago by her mother who was given the key to the legendary Pasha’s library by the famous Madame Cattaui.

As readers we can feel rewarded that Lagnado shared her family history with us and we can be glad that she was able to make new friends again in her native city. Two truly remarkable and touching memoirs.

Shark_Skin_2 Arrogant

Lucette Lagnado: The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, Ecco Press, New York 2007

Lucette Lagnado: The Arrogant Years, Ecco Press, New York 2011

 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.